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Literati, Meet Glitterati

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 1999; Page C01

NEW YORK, Nov. 17 –– Suddenly reading is sexy.

In a cultural turnabout, celebrities celebrated obscure authors here at the Marriott Marquis tonight at the 50th Annual National Book Awards. Steve Martin hosted the black-tie affair, at which a special award was given to talk show host Oprah Winfrey as well as $10,000 to each of the four winning authors.

Not to hold you in suspense too long, the winners are: Ha Jin in fiction for "Waiting," John W. Dower in nonfiction for "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II," Ai in poetry for "Vice: New and Selected Poems" and Kimberly Willis Holt in young people's literature for "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town."

Granted, Winfrey was invited to be honored for her inestimable influence on American reading habits (and book sales) through her monthly book club programs on television. And Bill Cosby was there because a couple of years ago Winfrey recommended his series of children's books to her viewers. But the idea that Hollywood luminaries would lie down with the literati is mind-boggling.

"Last year we had Wendy Wasserstein," recalled Bethesda novelist Alice McDermott, who won the 1998 fiction prize. "This year it's Steve Martin. We're definitely moving in a westerly direction."

Winfrey, in an elegant black sequined gown, accepted a crystal statue and a medal from National Book Foundation Executive Director Neil Baldwin. Books had opened doors and shown her a world "beyond Mississippi, beyond poverty," she said. Through her talk show's book club, she told the appreciative audience, she hopes to open doors for others as well.

Winfrey said she called Toni Morrison after reading one of her novels to say that she had had to puzzle over certain sentences again and again. Morrison's response, Winfrey said, mimicking the author's voice, was, "That, my dear, is called reading." Winfrey added that more than "muckety-mucks" and "rich la-di-dahs," she loves writers.

After receiving his award, Ha Jin--who left China in 1985 and became a U.S. citizen in 1997--gave thanks for both this "embracing land, a generous land" and for the English language. There has been a great tradition of prose writers whose mother tongue is not English." Ha Jin said "Waiting," a novel of star-crossed romance and politics set in China during the Cultural Revolution, was conceived in English. He wrote some idioms in Chinese, then translated the words back to English.

He draws great inspiration from Vladimir Nabokov. "I am really humbled," he said. "Nabokov was nominated seven times and never received one," he said, holding up the crystal sculpture. "I could feel his ghost."

Accepting his award, nonfiction winner Dower repeated the title of his book, "Embracing Defeat," and said, "I'm so socialized to do that, I don't know what to do at the moment." Martin knew what to do. He gave the group "a show biz tip": "You can't let the applause die out before you get to the stage."

Poetry jury chairman Lucille Clifton called the work of Ai, a poet of inner-city life, "daring and still lyrical." Ai was stunned by her victory. "When Lucille said 'daring,' I thought, 'Hmmm. That wouldn't be me.' "

Before the ceremony, Ai said, she couldn't believe the foundation had put her through such an ordeal. "I was full of self-pity," she said. "I pulled myself together and had a little chocolate."

Holt said the seed for her children's book came from a trip to the Louisiana State Fair when she was 13. "I paid $2 to see the fattest boy in the world." She asked lots of nosy questions.

She said she would use part of her prize money to take her husband and daughter to Guam, where she has been invited to speak in schools.

No touts with tip sheets stood at the door of the hotel before the ceremony and few of this year's nominees have achieved commercial as well as critical success.

The organizers of the National Book Awards stress that this is not about bucks but about books. Publishers might think otherwise. Victors usually see a positive bump in book sales.

The first awards ceremony was held March 16, 1950, by a bunch of publishing folks "to enhance the public's awareness of exceptional books written by fellow Americans, and to increase the popularity of reading in general." Today the soiree is staged by the nonprofit National Book Foundation.

Though other, more lucrative, awards have popped up over the years, the National Book Awards are still the Super Bowl of publishing in this country.

At this anniversary event, the foundation raised $1.7 million. The more than a thousand attendees, who paid $1,000 a seat tonight, received copies of Ralph L. Rusk's biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson--the first nonfiction winner half a century ago. Some 35 past winners were recognized, including historian David McCullough, who won in 1978 for his book on the Panama Canal and again in 1982 for his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and Ellen Gilchrist ("Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories," 1984), along with many writers from Oprah's Book Club. The Broadway Ballroom at the Marriott was acrawl with scrawlers.

This year's finalists in the fiction category were "A House of Sand and Fog" by Andre Dubus III, "Plainsong" by Kent Haruf, "Hummingbird House" by Patricia Henley and "Who Do You Love," a short-story collection by Jean Thompson.

In the poetry competition: "Vita Nova: Poems" by Louise Glueck, "Configurations: New & Selected Poems 1958-1998" by Clarence Major, "The Pilot Star Elegies" by Sherod Santos and "Repair" by C.K. Williams.

In nonfiction: "Woman: An Intimate Geography" by Natalie Angier, "Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette" by Judith Thurman, "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War" by Mark Bowden, and "Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation" by John Phillip Santos.

And in young people's literature: "The Birchbark House" by Louise Erdrich, "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson, "The Trolls" by Polly Horvath and "Monster" by Walter Dean Myers.

Tonight's banquet dotted the i of the three-day event. On Monday finalists for the young people's literature prize met the public at Hunter College. On Tuesday, most of the contenders in the other categories signed books at Barnes & Noble, and all of the finalists, save one, read from their works at the New School for Social Research.

The foundation also showed dinner guests a five-minute video of the group's educational outreach program. Throughout the year, the foundation sends its honorees into the community for readings to settlement houses, Native American reservations and inner city and rural neighborhoods. It also sponsors a summer writing camp for teens and adults.

At the start of tonight's festivities, emcee Steve Martin said the evening would culminate in the all-important swimsuit competition.

He told the audience how excited he was to be asked to host an awards ceremony for the "NBA." Looking out on the unathletic, gray-haired and tuxedoed group, he said it wasn't exactly the crowd he expected.

But it was, he said, "a great place to troll for intellectuals."

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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