The winners of the Lettre Ulysses Award – a prize for book-length reportage that I discussed a few weeks ago – have been announced. Alexandra Fuller’s account of her travels with a white, African mercenary, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier took the 50,000 Euro first prize while A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage by Moroccan Abdellah Hammoudi and Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend won the 30,000 Euro second prize and 20,000 Euro third prize, respectively.
The Booker frenzy is reaching a fevered pitch. I’ve scoured the web for the words of the shortlisted authors. Place your bets accordingly.The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall — excerptLine of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst — profileCloud Atlas by David Mitchell — excerptThe Master by Colm Toibin — excerptI’ll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward — excerptBitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor — interview
Joseph Epstein (Fabulous Small Jews, Snobbery) takes a look at the glut of awards, literary and otherwise in a Wall Street Journal piece: “All this prize-giving has made the field of culture rather like one of those progressive preschools where, on graduation day, even the most hopeless child is given a prize for not actually maiming his classmates.”
For my money, Domingo Martinez was the coolest person in the house. And that’s saying something because the house — a cavernous marble ballroom on Wall Street, site of Wednesday evening’s National Book Awards ceremony — was full of very cool people, including Elmore Leonard, Martin Amis, Terry Gross, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, and Dave Eggers.
But they’re household names to book lovers. They were supposed to be in the house. Domingo Martinez was not. This year, in an effort to blunt criticism that the awards were being watered down by a tendency to honor obscure authors of obscure books, the National Book Foundation told judges not to be shy about nominating popular books by well-known authors. The judges complied magnificently. The fiction finalists were four big names — Eggers, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, and Ben Fountain — plus first-time novelist Kevin Powers.
Same for the non-fiction category. Four of the finalists — Robert Caro, Katherine Boo, Anthony Shadid, and Anne Applebaum — had won at least one Pulitzer Prize apiece, and each had worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post, or Newsday. The fifth finalist was unknown Domingo Martinez, a first-time author who wrote a blistering memoir about growing up in Brownsville, Tex., called The Boy Kings of Texas.
As the cocktail hour wound down on Wednesday evening and guests began taking their seats for the $1,000-a-plate dinner, I spotted a rotund, merry-looking guy in a corner of the ballroom, regaling a small crowd with a story. It was Domingo Martinez. His agent, Alice Martell, was standing nearby, and she told me that the manuscript to Boy Kings had come to her unsolicited and, against some seriously long odds, it jumped out of the slush pile and grabbed her by the throat and wouldn’t let her go. “This almost never happens,” said Martell, who represented Carlos Eire, whose memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2003. “I only work with authors I like,” Martell said, “and Domingo’s a doll.”Non-fiction finalist Domingo Martinez, fueled by ginger ale, telling a story.
He finished telling his story, one hand chopping the air for emphasis, the other wrapped around a wine glass full of…
“What are you drinking?” I asked.
“Ginger ale,” Martinez replied.
“But there’s an open bar!”
“I know, but I don’t like to drink alcohol before I read.” He made a squinting face. “You know, it can make the words run together.”
This was astonishing, and beautiful. Martinez was not one of those dewy-eyed longshots you always see on the Oscars show, those first-time nominees who gush about what an honor it was just to get nominated and get a chance to wear an ugly dress and share Meryl Streep’s oxygen, blahblahblah. Screw that. Despite the long odds against him — a rough childhood in a border town, a manuscript that got plucked from the slush pile, some ridiculously stiff competition for a major literary award — Martinez had prepared an acceptance speech. And he wanted to be silver-tongued and alert when it came time to deliver it during the awards ceremony after dinner.
Domingo Martinez didn’t come to New York just wanting and hoping to win a National Book Award. He had come here prepared to win. Like I said, the coolest guy in the house.
It didn’t happen, of course. The non-fiction prize went to Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Not what you would call a dark horse.
The next day Martinez, the longest of the night’s longshots, wasn’t answering his telephone. Was he disappointed?
“Anybody would be disappointed,” Martell said. “Win or lose, in the aftermath of these things there’s a certain exhaustion. You suddenly hit a wall. Domingo hit a wall.”
It’s a safe bet that the people who run the National Book Foundation were not disappointed by Boo’s victory, or by the renowned Louise Erdrich’s in the fiction category. Overall, it was a good night for boldface names. Venerable, indefatigable Elmore Leonard was handed a medal by Brooklyn’s highest profile new resident, Martin Amis. Though teen-actress-turned-author Molly Ringwald failed to show, many other literary stars came out. The known trumped the unknown, which may be just what the doctor ordered for a foundation worried about becoming irrelevant in an industry that’s facing terrifying challenges.Stephen King talks to a fan, the German filmmaker Marianne Schaefer.
I’ve never been a big fan of prizes for artistic achievement, but seeing the Domingo Martinez story unfold this year gave me a new appreciation for the argument that anything that sells books in these dire times is a good thing. Martinez’s career got a to-die-for jump start. What’s wrong with that?
“Books, obviously, are not the same as other commodities,” Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, acknowledged in a telephone interview before the awards ceremony. “Competition between artworks is not accepted universally, and you can’t judge artworks the same way you judge consumer goods. But the National Book Award gives people the opportunity to disagree. It opens the conversation, which is a good thing. Literature should be discussed. In talking about books, we come to understand them better.”
Fine. But please, in your effort to become more mainstream, don’t get rid of all the longshots. They’re the real stars of any awards ceremony.
Also, check out The Millions’s recap and related coverage of this year’s National Book Award winners.
Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 14, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 18.
The fiction list seems especially varied this year and includes many newcomers. Alongside highly touted books by Hanya Yanagihara, Lauren Groff, and Adam Johnson. Are “newcomers” like Bill Clegg, Angela Flournoy, and Nell Zink. It’s a great time to be a reader.
In the other categories, after last year’s male-dominated Non-Fiction longlist, female authors have captured seven of the spots this year.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball (Ball’s Year in Reading, 2009)
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (exerpt)
Refund by Karen E. Bender (“For What Purpose”)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book’s opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt)
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (excerpt (pdf))
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction, Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)
Mislaid by Nell Zink
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (interview and excerpt)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (“We Know Less Than We Think We Do”)
Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes (excerpt)
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt)
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt)
Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore (essay)
Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti (excerpt)
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt)
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light)
Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White (excerpt)
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem)
Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler (excerpt)
A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker (the title poem)
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem)
The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (poem)
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem)
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things)
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem)
Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (poem)
Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab (poem)
Young People’s Literature:
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (excerpt)
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt)
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (excerpt)
This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt)
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (excerpt)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt)
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)