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National Book Awards include McCann, Eggers, Vidal

Claudette ColvinColum McCannDave EggersFlannery O'ConnorGore VidalKeith WaldropLet the Great World SpinNational Book AwardsPhillip HooseThe First TycoonTJ StilesTranscendental Studies


The National Book Award for Fiction went to Colum McCann for his novel "Let the Great World Spin," a story of New York in 1974 that doubles as an allegory of 9/11. It was the final award at the black-tie event Wednesday evening in New York City.

"In a certain way, novelists become unacknowledged historians, because we talk about small, tiny, little anonymous moments that won't necessarily make it into the history books," McCann told the L.A. Times last week. "I think we need stories, and we need to tell the stories over and over and over not only to remind us, but to be able to have that clarity of experience that changes us, so that we know who we are now because of who we have been at some other time."

Juried awards were presented in three other categories. The nonfiction prize was awarded to T.J. Stiles for "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt." Poetry went to Keith Waldrop, for "Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy," published by the University of California Press. Phillip Hoose took the award for young adult literature for "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice"; Colvin joined him on the stage. 

Two awards were known in advance: Gore Vidal received the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and Dave Eggers the Literarian Award. Those were presented before dinner -- downsized to chicken from last year's lamb -- after which the competition awards were announced.

A new award -- the Best of the National Book Awards -- was presented to celebrate the awards' 60th anniversary. After weeks of revisiting all the previous winners, five finalists were set to a public vote. More than 10,000 people voted online, and tonight, Flannery O'Connor's "The Complete Stories" beat out books by John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon and Eudora Welty to take the honor.

Since its start in 1950, the National Book Foundation, led by publishing professionals, has striven to reward excellence in American literature. It may not be the Oscars, but it's about as close as the publishing world gets.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Gore Vidal at the National Book Awards with presenter Joanne Woodward in the background. Credit:  Tina Fineberg / Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (5)

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You, Gore Vidal, are an American treasure. We adore and value your contribution to American culture. It's not always pretty, but you always tell it like it is.

Thank you Mr. Vidal!

I roundly second the comment by "Per."

Mr. Vidal has been a critically vital, often lone, voice in American letters. Searing wit and intellect underscores his courage and integrity when and where others cower in the brush. For that, he is one of the best of Americans. A true patriot. Peerless. The closest to enlightened aristocracy we'll ever get (wink).

Thank you, Mr. Vidal!

Gore is a kind of treasure -- but gold or fool's gold? -- and as for telling it like it is, Per, well, he's not God. Rather Vidal is a charming, learned and accomplished drama queen who tells it like he thinks it is so long as it's entertaining. And sometimes he is very wrong. But have you ever heard a correction or apology, much less a little humility, coming out of his mouth?

I doubt that Vidal has contributed as much fact or insight as historians like Diamond, Manchester, Caro, McCullough or that fellow Richard White up at Stanford, whose books on Western History are amazing revelations that have deserved National Book Awards for the last fifty years.

All of these award outfits -- for books, movies, newspapers -- are just too clubby to be true.

In Response to "Thom""

It's Vidal's chutzpah that's appealing, a style that won't quit. "Gold [and] fool's gold" both. And, yes, well said, a keenly astute "drama queen" who knows when he's on stage. In that performance, Vidal is incorrigible AND irresistible.

But, no question, in his profound love for this country, his spirit is true. He champions (U.S.) America at its most enlightened, just, and free... in the realization of our country's highest principles... a grand and noble project that has yet to fully be.

With one eye trained on that "great experiment," Vidal's other has remained fixed on the constant threat to it by forces who have no interest in a true democratic republic other than to exploit or destroy it for the power and profit of a corrupt and privileged few. Vidal's dedication to the ideal, and his awareness of its harsh realities, have not wavered.

In doing so, he has very often been fearlessly right about where we've steered disastrously wrong as a nation, but only because he knows the steep price we will pay for those errors. And where he has been wrong, and fiercely stubborn to self-correct, I believe he is forgivable on merit of the greater contributions he has made both in letters and in the public sphere. We can make up our own minds as to where there is inconsistency in his assertions, and disagree with him. And we do.

No one is always right. Vidal's core intent has remained genuine, authentic (not bought and paid for), and for longer than many of us have been alive. Of how many notable public figures can we say the same? At least to me, that is "a kind of treasure," indeed. Were it that we had more.

As to facts and insights, historians proper are of a different breed than Mr. Vidal, and vice versa. It's an important comparison you make, Thom, but perhaps not a precise one? For they also serve, society's cultivated provocateurs of the American scene. Vidal is deeply informed by the former, even as he fulfills the role of the latter -- and with as much flair and finesse as conviction and eloquence.

As for these kinds of awards, when done well, they can be nice, even meaningful, peer-to-peer fetes. But they are often also mere afterthoughts, which come easy when minds who already knew, or knew better, have already moved on.

Call America's biographer a fantasist but he's been prescient for 6 decades.
He's been at the crucible, he is the last gasp of America's former enviable state of mind.


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