Wednesday, November 16, 2005

National Book Awards Reading

Last night I attended a great reading at The New School, featuring 21 readers, all representing the nominees for this year's National Book Awards. All nominees in the four categories: fiction, non-fiction, young people's literature and poetry.

Ah, New York City! I loves ya!

A little background: this is an annual event, the show before the show, yet it is the first time I have attended one. Why, pray tell? Well, since arriving in Gotham, I have been treated since 1997 to a N.B.A. reading of sorts, or a signing, courtesy of Barnes & Noble, which has hosted a reading of the poetry nominees in one of their stores the week of the readings, or for several years, had a massive lunchtime reception in which all the nominees sit behind tables and sign books. This year, they did nothing, and I expressed my dismay at this last week at the Billy Collins reading to the head of store events at the B&N, Union Square.

So, deprived of my annual NBA signing ritual, I ventured to make this reading. It was almost disastrous. I arrived early to stake out a good seat only to find the event "sold out." I was cordoned off, 2nd in line, in an area designated for admittance in the event that there were remaining seats at the start of the reading. My earliness was rewarded when a woman approached the front of the line and announced she had two extra tickets, did we need them? Some guy was behind her and made a play for them and she snapped, "I offered them to these nice people, already in line." He hovered. While we were fumbling with our cash, he asked her again. She glared, "Now you'll get nothing!" and the man slinked away. We paid our $10 and she handed us our tickets. I thanked her profusely.

Upon entrance to the Tischman Auditorium, famous as the venue for Inside the Actor's Studio, I was handed a program and groaned slightly. Joan Didion and W.S. Merwin, definitely two of the bigger nominees, would not be attending. Substitute readers were listed. Oh well, that allowed me to focus on fewer authors after the event for signings.

Prior to the event, the readers and their guests arrived from backstage and walked into the auditorium, wearing their NBA nominee medals. I was distracted by a young British man behind me talking to his friend about visiting New York City for the first time since before 9/11. To quote, "I went down to Ground Zero. It wasn't that depressing. It's just a big hole in the ground. It's scary."

The event started 8 minutes late, and was introduced by Robert Polito, head of Creative Writing at the New School. He introduced Phillip Gourevitch (pronounced ger-ay-vitch, much to my surprise) who emceed the event and introduced the writers. He is the new editor of The Paris Review and an award-winning writer, most notably for We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.

He started off talking about the New York Times and their now annual ritual of trashing the National Book Awards. He made light of them of course, referring to Times columnist A.O. Scott's essay about the awards from this past Sunday's issue called "Medal Fatigue." He then mentioned that Norman Mailer would be receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Awards Ceremony tonight (Wednesday) and would be introduced by Toni Morrison. Too bad they didn't come Tuesday! He then read an excerpt from Mailer's Armies of the Night, a former NBA winner that alluded to (in the excerpt) Robert Lowell reading a poem at a war protest.

And then they were off! Four readers, one from each category, reading in five blocks, with a ten-minute intermission after block #3.

Block 1: Brendan Galvin, poet. Unmemorable. Adam Hochschild, non-fiction, interesting. E.L. Doctorow, fiction, phenomenal. Chris Lynch, young people's writing, extremely good. It should be noted, unlike all the others, Doctorow exited stage left and did not return to his seat, unlike all the other nominees.

Block 2: Rene Steinke, fiction, interesting. What should have been Joan Didion (my writer's desk calendar will have to wait to be signed), was instead the actor Griffin Dunne (left), best known for the films "After Hours," and "An American Werewolf in London." Dunne is the nephew of John Gregory Dunne, Didion's husband, whose death is central to her nominated memoir. He stumbled early on, but recovered and gave a nice reading of Didion's memoir.
Then Walter Dean Myers (left), young lit, and from what I could tell, the only non-white nominee, which could be one of the biggest criticisms of the nominees, their homogeneousness. And finally, John Ashbery, recently profiled in The New Yorker. He read two poems, "Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse," and "Interesting People of New Foundland."Quite good. When finished, much to my dismay, he exited a la Doctorow, but returned through the audience during the next block.

Block 3: Alan Burdick, very funny, reading from his book on naturalism, a fine excerpt about the invasion of Guam by the Australian brown tree snake. Frank Bidart then read some poetry. Adele Griffin did the young folks thing. And Christopher Sorrentino read fiction. Nothing memorable there.

During intermission, people milled about. I considered going for some signings, but it was packed and a book dealer, who I recognized from prior readings, also stayed put. The guy next to me however, had books too. He made an effort to penetrate the crowd to the front of the room, but came back unsuccessful, the book in his hands unsigned. I asked him, "Did Doctorow leave?" He nodded and said "Yes, he usually does." Another dealer.

Block 4: Jim Dwyer & Kevin Flynn took turns reading from their book about what it was like in the WTC after the first plane struck and before the second tower came down. You could hear a pin drop. The novelist William Vollmann read
next, a fiction piece about Germany around 1917. He began by saying that "People tell me I read at an interminably slow pace, but rest assured, it is only two and a half pages." I was surprised at his youth, 46, as I always thought he was an older writer. Then Mark Doty read for W.S. Merwin, "at home on Maui, in the town of Haiku, the most poetic place name on Earth." Doty read one piece, Merwin's "The Vixen," the title poem from the book of the same name. Then Deborah Wiles read young people's admirably.

Home stretch, last block: Leo Damrosch bored me to tears reading abut Rousseau and Ben Franklin. Jeanne Birdsall read young people's. Vern Rutsala (pictured), a poet I had never heard of, read three good poems, "Traffic Watch," "Cards from My Aunt," and "Billie Holliday." And then finally, Mary Gaitskill read from her novel "Veronica."

Now, I took off Monday and forgot to bring in books that I could have had Ashbery and Bidart sign. I ended up obtaining signatures from Ashbery in my anthologies Preferences, and The Best American Poetry 2000 and 2001. As Ashbery signed the first book, I heard David Lehman, editor of the Best American Poetry series, explaining the Preferences book to the person he was standing with. Ashbery was a bit confused by why I asked him to sign the 2000 edition, as he didn't have a poem in that volume. However, the back of the book features lists from all the previous guest editors of their favorite poems of the 20th century. I'd already had these lists signed by Donald Hall, Mark Strand, and Jorie Graham, so figured the more the merrier. Next, I had Frank Bidart sign his contributions in The Best American Poetry 1998, 2002, and 2003. For those playing the home game, my 1998 anthology is the current leader, boasting 34 poets' signatures, out of 77 total.

Finally I asked Mary Gaitskill (pictured at a different reading) to sign her story "The Nice Restaurant" in a New Yorker anthology of love stories. Gaitskill cringed. She said, "Actually, this is probably my least favorite story I have ever published. The New Yorker surprises me sometimes." I apologized (for what reason I'm not sure), but she agreed to sign it anyway.

Anyway, I wanted, based on my experience, to predict tonight's winners and see how close I get, so here goes:

Poetry: Vern Rutsala
Fiction: E.L. Doctorow (right)
Non-Fiction: Dwyer and Flynn, for 102 Minutes
Young People's: Chris Lynch

Check in tomorrow to see how I did!

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