Journalist Masha Gessen and novelist Jesmyn Ward were among the big winners Wednesday night as authors, publishers and literary benefactors gathered in New York City to celebrate the 68th National Book Awards ceremony.
Actress Cynthia Nixon, who emceed the evening, spoke of the power of literature in the current political moment ― one she described as difficult for many, especially women, people of color and other marginalized groups. “To remain on the defensive in nearly every waking hour takes its toll,” she said.
“For many of us, books provide a welcome escape into another world.” Literature can also, she said, provide “broadened perspective.” “They expose us to an experience we couldn’t imagine on our own. Books matter.”
And four books, in particular, mattered Wednesday evening ― though Lisa Lucas opened the presentation by telling the finalists, “Don’t worry. You’re all winners already.” Below are the winners in each of the National Book Award’s four categories.
Young People’s Literature
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The evening also honored two literary figures for their life’s work. President Bill Clinton presented the Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community to Richard Robinson, the longtime president and CEO of Scholastic.
“I’m grateful to [Robinson] for personal reasons,” said Clinton in his remarks. “He sent Hillary and me copies of the Harry Potter books so we didn’t have to wait in line at the bookstore.” But, putting aside that display of preferential treatment, Clinton praised Robinson’s and Scholastic’s dedication to leveling the playing field by supporting literacy among lower-income children.
Acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Annie Proulx, perhaps best known as the author of the short story behind the film “Brokeback Mountain,” was presented the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by one of the movie’s stars, Anne Hathaway.
In her searing speech, Proulx cataloged the many crises facing the country, including climate change, the cascade of sexual harassment accusations and the divisive state of our political dialogue. “This is a Kafkaesque time,” she said.
Despite her grim outlook, she added a touch of encouragement, if not optimism: “The happy ending still beckons, and it is in the hope of grasping it that we go on.”
The announcement of the 2017 winners wasn’t the National Book Foundation’s only big news on Wednesday. Earlier that day, the Art for Justice Fund announced that the National Book Foundation would be among its first grant recipients. The fund was established earlier this year to advocate for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration. The National Book Foundation, according to the fund’s announcement, will use the grant to “launch a ‘Literature for Justice’ program focused on mass incarceration.”