STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The National Book Foundation offered some star power at its annual awards ceremony last night in New York - Bill Clinton, Anne Hathaway, Cynthia Nixon. But the real stars of the evening were 20 writers, nominated for prose and poetry. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Writer Jacqueline Woodson isn't used to the red-carpet treatment. She's attended the awards in the past as both a nominee and a winner. This year, she was a judge for the fiction prize, but when she stepped into the spotlight, photographers wanted to know if she has set a record for wins and nominations.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: I don't think so - maybe tied with someone. I don't know (laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Susan Lucci.
WOODSON: Susan Lucci. Hey, Lynn, good to see you.
NEARY: The National Book Awards are sometimes called the Oscars of the book industry. And Lisa Lucas, who took over as head of the National Book Foundation last year, has worked to insert a little more glamour into the awards ceremony. Glitz aside, Lucas says many of this year's nominated books seem to speak directly to the current political and cultural climate, even though they were years in the making.
LISA LUCAS: I don't think any of these writers were trying to be timely. It's that voices that we are now acknowledging are actually finding their way to publication. They're finding their way into our homes, into libraries, and then, all of a sudden, we say, wow, how timely, when what is timely is looking at the full range of the human experience.
NEARY: President Bill Clinton gave the award for outstanding literary contribution to Dick Robinson of the children's book publisher Scholastic. Annie Proulx, author of "The Shipping News" and "Brokeback Mountain," also got a lifetime achievement award. She told the crowd that readers still yearn for happy endings, even though these are Kafkaesque times.
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ANNIE PROULX: We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data.
NEARY: Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen was the winner in the nonfiction category for "The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia." She calls it a cautionary tale.
MASHA GESSEN: It's about the missed opportunity of democracy in Russia. And it's really an attempt to reckon with how that opportunity was passed up, what didn't happen.
NEARY: The fiction prize went to Jesmyn Ward for her novel "Sing, Unburied, Sing." It's the second time she's won the award. She said early in her career, she'd been told no one would read her books because they didn't want to read about the characters she created. But the people in the room last night, she said, believed in her.
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JESMYN WARD: You looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women and men and you saw yourself. You saw your grief, your love, your losses, your regrets, your joy, your hope. And I am deeply grateful to each and every one of you who reads my work and finds something that sings to you.
NEARY: The prize for poetry went to Frank Bidart for "Half-light," a collection of a lifetime of his poems. Robin Benway won the young people's literature award for "Far From The Tree."
Lynn Neary, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLA KVERNBERG'S "MECHANICAL FAIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.