Gaffes, but no fireworks, at National Book Awards

Unlike 1998, no egos run amok.

Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Accepting a special gold medal at the 50th anniversary of the National Book Awards Wednesday night, Oprah Winfrey described calling up novelist Wally Lamb and marveling to learn that some authors actually wash their own clothes. This year's awards ceremony, held in the ballroom of New York's Marriott Marquis, certainly drives the point home; there wasn't a stitch of dirty laundry to be found.

While not outright controversial, last year's National Book Awards benefited from a few gossipy ripples. John Updike, who was the 1999 gold medal winner, had recently written a less-than-glowing review of one of the fiction nominees, Tom Wolfe, and until it became clear that Wolfe wasn't going to show for the ceremony (perhaps guessing, correctly, that he wouldn't win), attendees were murmuring about the potential of a chilly meeting of the two literary lions. Wolfe's decision to opt out proved prudent. Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy" took the fiction prize last year in an upset, beating out Wolfe's "A Man in Full" and "Damascus Gate" -- the work of another marquee author, Robert Stone, who was considered Wolfe's most serious challenger.

This year there was nary a feud nor an overweening ego on the horizon, and the slate of dark horse fiction nominees eliminated the likelihood of any major surprise at the announcement of the winner (Ha Jin's "Waiting"). In fact, it was the hired help who caused the trouble: Emcee (and "Pure Drivel" author) Steve Martin got off a few decent wisecracks ("You didn't expect to win, yet you wrote a speech. It doesn't add up," he observed to children's literature winner Kimberly Willis Holt as she left the stage), but he also mispronounced the name of publishing house St. Martin's.

Most egregiously, Martin (or whoever supplied him with the nominee list) forgot to announce novelist Patricia Henley (author of "Hummingbird House") among the fiction nominees, and the chairman of the fiction panel, Charles Johnson, neglected to correct the error when he took the podium. This was the first-ever NBA nomination for Henley's publisher, MacMurray & Beck, which must have made the omission all the more disappointing for the small Denver house.

In addition to accuracy, sportsmanship was also in short supply. Holt was the only winner to acknowledge the other nominees in her category, a gesture that's something of an NBA tradition. Could this be the legacy of last year's nonfiction winner, the remarkably unpopular Edward Ball? When Ball took the podium last November, his announcement that he intended to donate a quarter of the proceeds of his book, "Slaves in the Family," to charity only seemed to intensify the widely held sentiment in publishing circles that Ball is insufferably self-congratulatory. Some observers even claimed to have seen the staff of Ball's former publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, visibly cringe as the author made his speech.

Before announcing that historian John W. Dower had won the nonfiction prize for "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II," panel chairman Neal Gabler treated an unappreciative audience to a jeremiad about the state of publishing. He denounced publishers for publishing books "that made for good marketing" rather than "marketing good books," cautioning that "we have to protect publishing from ourselves" before concluding that he had "come not to bury publishing, but to praise it."

Martin had kicked off the gathering by offering an informed comparison for those similarly disenchanted with the industry: "There's a big difference between the National Book Awards and the Academy Awards," he said. "At the Academy Awards you can feel the greed and envy and ego. Whereas the National Book Awards," he added, pausing for ironic effect, "are in New York."'

However, at this relatively sedate anniversary gala, the closest thing to an expression of envy came from Dorothy Allison's fellow fiction judges, who evinced an awed marvel at her stamina as a reader. Panel chairman Johnson said Allison had read some of the entries five or six times, and other judges seconded his statement with slightly stunned nods. Allison herself didn't attend the ceremony. No doubt she was enjoying a well-earned rest.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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