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November 18, 2004

And the Winners Are...

by Ron Hogan

The National Book Awards for 2004:

And let's not forget the recognition of Judy Blume's "distinguished contribution to American letters." Blume gave a wonderful speech, saying that by honoring her the National Book Foundation was paying honor to the community of children's book writers, and singled out Beverly Cleary, Louise Fitzhugh, and Elaine Konigsberg as particularly strong influences on her own work. She joked about the literary legacy of her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where her uncle taught high school English to Mickey Spillane and her mother went to school with Phillip Roth's mother. And, she noted of her status as the second most censored author in American libraries, "I never planned to become an activist, but things happen." She called upon four of her friends in the audience to stand and be recognized: Joan Burtin of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Chris Finan of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Judith Krug of the American Library Association's Office For Intellectual Freedom, and Pat Scales, a South Carolina school librarian who fights the good fight making sure kids have access to all sorts of books that might say something to them about their lives. (I should also point out that Blume was introduced by eleven-year-old Abby Boyle, the eldest child of the nonfiction winner; he explained to me during the reception afterwards that the Foundation had called him about a week after he'd asked if it was okay to bring his two daughters to the ceremony and asked if she'd like to read from Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret.)

I ran into nonfiction judge Katherine Newman in the lobby before things got underway and asked her what the judging process had been like. "It was a wonderful experience and I've learned so much," she said, once I'd established that I didn't want any hints as to what was happening. "We're living in a society that could possibly be characterized as fascinated by reality videos and other mediocre public entertainment, so to find 450 very serious, thoughtful books made me very proud to feel part of an active literary culture."

That number easily surpassed the submissions in the other three categories, which the judging committee chairs cited in their remarks as 180 for young people's literature, nearly 200 for poetry, and 272 for fiction. In sorting through that last category, Rick Moody explained, the fiction judges evaluated "excellence and nothing else," especially "not reputation nor popularity." At which point I stopped really taking notes and just started mentally gearing up for the champagne reception, where I chatted with Stewart O'Nan about the fallout from his frank remarks concerning Phillip Roth and Tom Wolfe to the New Yorker before Mary Karr lured me over to her table to chat with Jessica Hagedorn, Nelson George, and Mary Logue, who has this delightful insight into her relationship with Pete Hautman on her website:

We work in offices right next to each other and occasionally have lunch together, but always dinner. He tells me what kind of cars my characters should drive and I give him information on women's shoes and clothes. It works.
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