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'Salvage The Bones' Takes Top Fiction Honors At The National Book Awards

Jesmyn Ward, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for her book <em>Salvage the Bones</em>, poses at the National Book Awards Wednesday night.
Tina Fineberg
Jesmyn Ward, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for her book Salvage the Bones, poses at the National Book Awards Wednesday night.

In a celebratory National Book Awards on Wall Street last night, Stephen Greenblatt took the nonfiction award for Swerve, while, in a surprise turn in fiction, Jesmyn Ward won for Salvage the Bones.

Everyone loves to gripe about the National Book Award judges — for nominating only women, for not including genre or mainstream fiction, for selecting too-obvious titles, for omitting big-hitting literary names.

This year, Laura Miller at accused the judges of overlooking such well-known books as The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, in favor of small-press books (with the exception of Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife). She wrote, "The National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public." An arguable point.

Victor LaValle, one of this year's fiction judges and author of Big Machine, responded to Miller on a Publishers Weekly blog, questioning whether the NBA selections are "meant to edify rather than, dare I even type it, entertain." Another arguable point.

This year, the nominee announcement was eclipsed by the embarrassing gaffe whereby a book, Lauren Myracle's Shine, was nominated but wasn't meant­­ to be. The misunderstanding took place when the nominations for Young Adult Fiction were conveyed over the phone, and the judge compiling the list heard "Shine" instead of the title that was in fact nominated: Franny Billingsley's Chime. Initially, the judges decided to include both books on the list, resulting in an unprecedented six nominations. Days later, the board asked Ms. Myracle to withdraw. She did, with great grace.

I have attended most of the NBA ceremonies over the last 10 years, and each time, when the appointed night arrives, the publishing industry puts away the controversy and puts on its best manners.

This year was no exception. The event has been held for the last three years at Cipriani at Wall Street, a Greek-revival building that over the years has been occupied by the New York Merchants Exchange, the New York Stock Exchange and the United States Customs House. You walk into a glorious room of white marble columns and arches. Dozens of tables, each set for a dozen guests, fill the floor. In the balcony above, waiters pass around cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

John Lithgow, the host, joked that when he walked in, he turned right around. This couldn't possibly be where writers would gather, could it? Just two blocks away was Zuccotti Park, with just 20 protestors remaining. On this night, you felt like one of the 1 percent.

But this evening felt like more than a feast of material wealth. In the end it was a celebration of literature, art and people who endeavored to create something bigger than themselves.

Walter Mosley presented Mitchell Kaplan ("handsome, hale, and hairy"), creator of Miami Book Fair International, with the Literarian Award for Service to the Literary Community. Poet John Ashbery, accepting the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, marveled at the discoveries made each time he opens a book. "This award," he said, "makes me feel the past few decades have not been wasted."

Marc Aronson, chair of the Young People's Literature Award — who had mistakenly announced Shine as a nominee — dug his hole deeper (and unwittingly deflected attention from the ultimate winner, Thanhhai Lai's Inside Out & Back Again) by comparing the gaffe to a bad call in the most recent World Series.

In accepting the poetry award to uproarious applause, Nikky Finney (Head Off & Split) said, "Black people were the only people in the U.S. who were officially forced to be illiterate. I am now speechless." Stephen Greenblatt, who won the nonfiction award for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, was astounded that he would win for "a book about a poem written 2,000 years ago. I am moved to tears."

In the one surprise winner of the evening, the fiction award — expected by most folks to go to Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife) — went to Jesmyn Ward for Salvage the Bones. "I wanted to do something with my time that had meaning," Ward said.

Are the awards irrelevant? Not to the authors and publishers who have worked so hard on the books. As LaValle said in his blog post: "Maybe it's just that Ms. Miller, and her fellow jurists, fell in love with a wonderful book and wanted everyone to read it."

Seemed like everyone in the room had felt the same thing.

Mark Rotella, a senior editor at Publishers Weekly is the author of Amore: The Story of Italian American Song.

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Mark Rotella