Let’s be honest: At the 2014 National Book Awards ceremony Wednesday night, Ursula K. Le Guin stole the show.
Speaking from the stage at a black-tie ceremony at the Manhattan restaurant Cipriani, where she was presented with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the 85-year-old science fiction writer first took a moment to say that she was “accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long.”
Then, she went on to stand up for literature as art rather than commodity, observing, in a thinly veiled jab at Amazon.com Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, that “we just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience.”
The National Book Awards are very much about literature as art - a celebration of writing in four categories. The fiction prize was won by Phil Klay for his Iraq war novel “Redeployment,” the writing of which he called “the only way to start thinking through” the questions raised by his experience in the war.
This, of course, is what books can offer, what fiction prize presenter Geraldine Brooks characterized as “the exhilaration of being a human being.”
Certainly that sensibility marks the other winning titles: Louise Gluck in poetry for her collection “Faithful and Virtuous Night”; Evan Osnos in nonfiction for “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China”; and Jacqueline Woodson in young people’s literature for her novel “Brown Girl Dreaming.”
“I was complaining,” Woodson joked, referring to the finalists’ medallion, “how heavy the medal is, but the award is much heavier.” She was speaking literally, but also metaphorically.
Awards such as this, after all, have a weight in the culture, influencing everything from book sales to the public conversation, and perhaps the politics of the market place, as well.
That was the implication of Le Guin’s pointed and delightful speech, and she was not alone in her sentiments. Host Daniel Handler opened the evening by quoting an imagined message from Bezos to the audience: “You’re going down. I’m going to slaughter you all.”
And yet, for all the barbs aimed at Amazon, the main theme of the evening was the power of literature as a transformative force.
Or, as Kyle Zimmer of First Book, an organization that provides books to underprivileged children and the schools that serve them, put it upon winning the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community: “In truth, great books call these questions for all of us. They ask if we have what it takes to be leaders, to be heroes.”