BOOKSHAKALAKA: The National Book Awards Jam Throws Down for 2010


An unlikely ballroom of people in the troubled business of literature — publishers, editors, writers, reporters, and respective sycophants — gather yearly to ostensibly celebrate writing. But really? To get trashed and dance. For books. Last night on Wall Street, the 2010 National Book Awards went down like this.

Looking out from a cocktail table off to the side of the Cipriani Ballroom with a bunch of other reporters lunging for the bar every few minutes, it hits you: It’s never not strange that the biggest book party in America every year is on Wall Street.

Not some tweed-lined penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side, or some South Brooklyn concert venue a stone’s throw from where too many New York writers live, or even some hotel event space in Midtown, where many of the biggest publishers in the country are headquartered. But on Wall Street. And not just Wall Street, but in the Cipriani Ballroom, which is about as humble a space as Barnes & Noble is a bookstore.

Yet, there it is: a room full of “evening wear”-wearing publishing people at candlelit tables with their prized pet pen-jockeys, at what may be the highest M.F.A.-to-M.A. ratio in the country every year, on Wall Street no less, sponsored by Barnes & Noble, of course.

And like every year, these people generally aren’t celebrating the books that sell even remotely well. Chances are that all 20 of the NBA-nominated books for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young-adult fiction combined will sell less than Justin Bieber’s memoirs.

This is an awards ceremony at which The Supposed Great American Novel of 2010, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, isn’t even nominated. Let Franzen, Sig Gissler, and the rest of the crusty dicks of the Pulitzer board have their Great American Novel. These people are celebrating their books, their writers’ exceptional writing, and they are not ashamed. Far from it. They are ecstatic that people even give a shit about their books enough to give them a reason to put on a tux or a nice dress. This is one of the only places in the world a room full of people not on a payroll will ever be genuinely thankful for Tina Brown, whose Daily Beast sponsored the after-party. Yes, the former New Yorker and TALK MAGAZINE editor historically has culturally coddled the ‘highbrow-brilliant’ honorees like prized, rare, beautiful exotic birds, as she scandalizes and gives the tabloid-treatment to news, literature, culture, and the arts on the side. But if it weren’t for her, who would give them their moment? Or at the very least, their material?

Better question: Who gives a shit? As comically oversize medals swing from all the nominees’ necks, it becomes plainly evident that, in the rarest of circumstances like these, people are truly, sincerely just happy to be there. And if they get to go up on the dais to accept an award, well then, how about that?

Yet, like many industry’s self-congratulatory award ceremonies, the books most likely to reach a wider audience for said industry tend to win the awards. Then again, there were — as there sometimes tends to be — surprises.

As East Village punk legend Patti Smith’s name was called out as the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction, what would be the loudest applause of the evening rang out. It’s the kind of surprising feeling that would’ve taken a room if The Dark Knight won the Best Picture Oscar. In some regard, it was predictable: Patti Smith’s book is going to sell more copies than any of the others this evening, because she’s Patti Smith. At the same time, she’s Patti Smith! Without reading her book, would you peg her as the kind of person to take home a National Book Award last night?

She certainly didn’t. Smith got on the dais slowly and clumsily, and choked up in tears — a rare showing of bare emotion not just for Smith, but for the ceremony — as she remembered stocking books back in the day. Another shocker ripped through the room as the prize-winner for fiction — Jaimy Gordon’s win for Lord of Misrule — stunned the room into short applause and screaming at her table, and then, silence as Gordon could barely move out of her seat, to the podium on the stage to accept her award in complete shock. Why so surprised?

The odds-on favorite for the NBA fiction prize was Nicole Krauss, a capital-B Brooklyn Writer if there ever was one, wife of Everything Is Illuminated literary darling Jonathan Safran Foer. The regular New Yorker contributor had a book backed by publishing giant HarperCollins, and she’s already got a best-seller under her with The History of Love.

As opposed to the Baltimore-bred Gordon. Who lives and teached in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Whose book was published by indie publisher McPherson & Co. Whose website looks like this. The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff reports that “in a well-worn tradition, the list of finalists inspired some grumbling from publishing insiders who objected that the choices were too obscure.” No doubt, they’ve got some shit to say today, and had more grumbling to do last night. But after the show, was the after-party. And the NBA after-party was, per tradition, a complete and utter shitshow.

As happens now yearly, at 10PM, a gaggle of thirsty media wonks, publishing assistants, and other assorted partiers who didn’t make the list to sit at the $12,000-a-pop tables gathered outside, waiting for the ceremony to finish.

When it did, they shuffled through the front of Cipriani, and after passing through a bunch of headset-wearing clipboard monkey-flacks, headed straight to the bar, or the dance floor.

Some of them gawked at the sight of a step-and-turn at the National Book Awards, along with Daily Beast reporters sticking comically oversized microphones in the faces of people who just showed up to the party.

Most of the NBA winners were still at their tables, in shock, or already on the dance floor. They probably assumed the brightly-lit interviews were for people more famous than them. They wouldn’t be wrong.

Before going upstairs, spotted on the step-and-turn was editor and Women-in-Tech panel star speaker Rachel Sklar — who just hours before was Tweeting about trying on a presumably lended-out dress at chichi clothier St. John’s — getting recorded speaking on the step-and-turn. She’d just arrived for the party.

Upstairs, 90s rap blared out over a dance floor and an open bar. NBA medals swinging from their necks, writers danced to Montell Jordan and Snoop Dogg alongside editors, reporters, photographers, assistants, and other well-dressed people getting drunk on the cheap.

The self-conscious, corner-huddling lit-snobbery often associated with the kinds of books being celebrated tonight (even by some of the people in the room) was nowhere to be found. Happy people who love writing were getting trashed and dancing. The emotion was genuine, the booze was strong, the fun was real.

Even at a time like this, when the care for good literature surviving continues to be a surprising thing. At one point, the ceremony’s host, Andy Borowitz, cracked wise: “I said last year that publishing was a sinking ship. I believe that publishing is still very much in the process of sinking. Publishing is a Carnival cruise ship. It’s on fire, the toilets don’t work, but we are surviving day to day on Pop-Tarts and Spam.”

It might be enough, or at least, it is for these people. Patti Smith echoed a common sentiment as she choked out the final words of her speech: “Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.

Like last year, the ceremony was sponsored by Google, kings of hoarding information, literature, and art as “content.” But it was not, as predicted by a drunk editor last year, DJ’d by an Amazon Kindle in 2010.

It was DJ’d by a guy who thought “Gin and Juice” could bring people out to the dance floor. And the DJ — as they often are — was right. Like every year at the NBAs, they may be hope for books yet.

Further reading:

The National Book Awards [The Awl]

All photos by Nate “Igor” Smith. Full hi-res gallery of National Book Awards photos here.