National Book Award winners announced

Surprised gasps greet wins by Sontag and Philbrick.

By Laura Miller

Published November 16, 2000 9:14AM (EST)

Audible gasps greeted the announcements of the winners of the two most avidly watched categories at the 2000 National Book Awards Wednesday night at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" for nonfiction and Susan Sontag's "In America" for fiction.

The winners are:

Fiction: "In America" by Susan Sontag (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Nonfiction: "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Penguin)

Poetry: "Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000" by Lucille Clifton (BOA Editions)

Young people's literature: "Homeless Bird" by Gloria Whelan (HarperCollins)

Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" beat widespread favorite Jacques Barzun's bestselling "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present" (HarperCollins). Before the ceremony, several seasoned NBA-watchers expressed confidence that French-born, 93-year-old Barzun would win the award as the cap to a long career as an eminent historian with a sizable popular readership.

Only David Levering Lewis' magisterial "W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963" (Holt), the second volume of his biography of the civil rights leader, was deemed likely to give Barzun a run for his money ($10,000 to be precise, the amount claimed by each NBA winner). Also nominated were Alice Kaplan's "The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach" (University of Chicago Press) and the evening's least favored candidate, the controversial "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon" (W.W. Norton) by Patrick Tierney, a book whose claim that geneticist James Neel intentionally started a deadly measles epidemic among the Yanomami Indian tribe was formally disputed by the National Academy of Science in early November, after the NBA nominations were announced.

If the judges for the nonfiction prize rejected the idea of making this year's award a lifetime achievement honor, the fiction panel apparently took the opposite route. From a list of nominees that many in the publishing industry considered quixotic and decidedly underwhelming, Sontag was deemed the least likely to win. Charles Baxter's "The Feast of Love" (Pantheon) was the personal favorite of several attendees, while others had pegged either Francine Prose's "Blue Angel" (HarperCollins), an academic satire, or Joyce Carol Oates' novelization of Marilyn Monroe's life, "Blonde" (Ecco Press), for the prize, although "Blonde" and Alan Lightman's "The Diagnosis" (Pantheon), an unsettling tale of a businessman beset with amnesia, were unusually idiosyncratic choices for an award that usually leans toward more straightforward literary fare.

Greeted with mixed reviews and sluggish sales, "In America" found few readers in literary circles, where the statement that Sontag's fiction is greatly inferior to her influential criticism has become a cocktail party truism. The NBA probably won't change that image -- instead, Thursday's watercooler conversation will no doubt attribute Sontag's fiction prize to a desire to honor a literary icon whose struggle with cancer has intensified in recent years.

The black-tie ceremony, emceed by actor-turned-novelist Steve Martin, concluded with the presentation of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ray Bradbury, author of "The Martian Chronicles' and the anti-book-burning classic "Fahrenheit 451."

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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