NEW YORK — The National Book Foundation announced the winners of the 2011 National Book Awards on Wednesday evening, bestowing the fiction award on Jesmyn Ward, author of “Salvage the Bones,” which chronicles 12 days in the life of a poor African American family attempting to weather Hurricane Katrina in coastal Mississippi.
Ward told those in attendance in the grand Italianate ballroom of the Cipriani restaurant in Lower Manhattan that she had made it her goal to tell the stories of marginalized people, stories that had for too long gone unnoticed. Ward acknowledged, with equal parts joy and humility, that writing “is a life’s work, and I am only at the beginning.”
The nonfiction award went to Stephen Greenblatt for his book “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” about a 15th-century book lover who almost single-handedly spawned the Renaissance’s rediscovery of classicism.
Greenblatt thanked the ancient poet Lucretius in his speech — to healthy applause — and then went on to confirm the power of books “to cross boundaries, to speak to you, impossibly, across space and time and distance.”
Nikky Finney won in the poetry category for her boldly political collection “Head Off & Split.” Thanhha Lai was honored in the young-adult category for her autobiographical novel, “Inside Out & Back Again,” about a Vietnamese family in Alabama.
The ceremony took place only two blocks away from Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street protesters braved the rain, newly deprived of their tents and sleeping bags, per court order. It combined barely submerged anxiety about the uncertain state of the publishing industry with optimism about the role that books continue to play in the healthy development of culture.
That dichotomy was embodied in the form of Mitchell Kaplan, a Miami-based bookseller and a former president of the American Booksellers Association, who was presented with the 2011 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community. In a speech that at times seemed almost nostalgic for a “golden age” of both publishing and bookselling, he said: “I firmly believe that even with all the upheaval we find in our industry today, there is room for optimism. Writers are writing marvelous and important books, publishers are publishing them, and — as every bookseller knows — readers want to know and buy them.”
The celebrated poet John Ashbery, known for intricate and densely allusive poems that have earned him comparisons to the surrealists, was presented with a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In his speech he acknowledged that “to many people . . . what I write makes no sense.” Later he asserted that “for as long as I have been writing poetry, it has been criticized as being difficult and private, which I never intended it to be.”
In recent years, some critics have complained that the National Books Awards reflect the narrow, rarefied tastes of a handful of private judges rather than the broader tastes of the American reading public.
This year’s winners were drawn from a group of finalists whose critical reputations most likely exceed their name recognition among general readers. Among them, perhaps only two — poet Adrienne Rich, whose work has been widely anthologized and taught since the 1970s, and Manning Marable, a historian whose nominated biography of Malcolm X was published just days after Marable’s death in April — could be said to be well known outside literary and intellectual circles.
But no complaints along these lines were to be heard Wednesday night, just as no mention was made of the lone controversy that had attended this year’s awards.
Last month, author Lauren Myracle was named as a finalist for her young-adult novel “Shine,” only to have her nomination revoked the next day by the nominating committee. The culprit: human error. Someone had mistaken “Shine” with the similar-sounding “Chime,” another young-adult novel, this one by Franny Billingsley, and had put the wrong title on the list of finalists.
Myracle was not believed to be in attendance at Wednesday’s ceremony. But her name was on the lips of many, as they ate and drank and gossiped between awards.
She, too, can claim to have won something Wednesday: an increased buzz among her peers that can be traced to an unfortunate mix-up. As any writer — or writer’s publicist — knows, you can’t buy press like that.
Turrentine is a freelance writer.