The 60th annual National Book Awards was a night to celebrate American literature and to wonder about its future.
Lifetime achievement winner Gore Vidal envisioned only pulp and dust Wednesday as he contemplated the state of books, while fellow honorary winner Dave Eggers declared that we live in a golden age. The evening's host, Andy Borowitz, joked that the meaning of publishing was "a lot of hard work. Then nothing."
As the e-book march advances, both Eggers and fiction winner Colum McCann insisted that paper texts were stronger than ever. McCann won the fiction prize for "Let the Great World Spin," a novel about daring, luck and mortality in the pre-digital world of 1970s New York.
He has called his book an act of hope written in part as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Accepting his prize, McCann praised the generosity of American fiction and of the American people. He dedicated the win to a fellow Irish-American, "good old" Frank McCourt.
"I think he's dancing upstairs," McCann said of the "Angela's Ashes" memoirist, who died last summer after a battle with cancer.
T.J. Stiles' biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, "The First Tycoon," was the nonfiction winner. Keith Waldrop's "Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy" won for poetry. The young people's literature award went to Phillip Hoose's "Claudette Colvin," based on the true story of an early civil rights heroine, who was shaken with emotion as she joined Hoose on the stage.
Hoose thanked Colvin for letting him relate her story, which he had feared would vanish "under history's rug."
"We have saved that story," he said of Colvin, 70, who as a teenager was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, months before a similar incident made Rosa Parks a symbol of defiance.
Stories of oppressors and underdogs, of rich and poor, were common themes among Wednesday night's nominees.
Finalists included Bonnie Jo Campbell's short fiction about hard times in Michigan, "American Salvage," and Daniyal Mueenuddin's tales of the class divide in Pakistan, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders."
Money, or lack of it, also shaded McCann's book and two other nominated novels: Marcel Theroux's "Far North" and Jayne Anne Phillips' "Lark & Termite."
"Money does matter, especially when you haven't got any," Campbell said during a recent interview. "A lot of the trouble in my book comes from folks not having enough money to get by. In Michigan a lot of folks are losing their jobs, or losing their benefits when their jobs go to part-time, and that causes stress and trouble."
A special prize, voted on by the public, was given to "The Complete Stories" of Flannery O'Connor as the best of all fiction winners in the awards' history. Finalists included story collections by Eudora Welty and John Cheever, and Ralph Ellison's novel "Invisible Man."
The ceremony was held at the palatial restaurant Cipriani Wall Street, the kind of gilded hall where the likes of Vanderbilt would have roamed. Borowitz, a satirist with little regard for barons of commerce, explained that when the National Book Foundation asked him to host the awards he was so honored that he would have done it for nothing — an arrangement the nonprofit foundation had in mind all along.
Borowitz did refer to one presumably wealthy author, joking that next year's favorite for the fiction prize was former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue," the best-selling memoir she was promoting in Grand Rapids, Mich., while the literary elite gathered in New York.
The humor turned even darker when a lifetime achievement award was presented — by actress Joanne Woodward — to Vidal. Melancholy and wheelchair bound, the 84-year-old's baritone was weak as he lamented the war in Afghanistan, longed for the presidency of the "gallant" Franklin Roosevelt and looked downward, presumably to a place very far from McCourt, as he called out to his fallen (and unforgiven) conservative enemy, the late William F. Buckley.
"Usually, I let him out at midnight," Vidal said of Buckley, with whom he feuded for decades.
The skies cleared after Vidal finished and was followed by Eggers, 39, nervously wringing his hands, praising Vidal as one of his heroes, savoring the acceptance of "strange" in publishing and spreading good news about the written word.
Cited for his contributions to the literary community, Eggers told the audience it would be "full of optimism" if it could see some of the students he has met through his 826 Valencia project, which helps young people with writing skills.