James McBride won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction for “The Good Lord Bird,” a satirical account of pre-Civil War America that features a cross-dressing slave who gets caught up in John Brown’s famous anti-slavery rebellion.
The finalists in the fiction category included Rachel Kushner for “The Flamethrowers,” Jhumpa Lahiri for “The Lowland,” George Saunders for “Tenth of December,” and the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon, for the novel “Bleeding Edge.” As expected, Pynchon declined to attend the ceremony.
In accepting the award at a gala dinner Wednesday in New York City, McBride said the novel’s protagonist, Little Onion, served as his friend during a rough patch in his life that included the death of his mother and niece and the breakup of his marriage. Little Onion is a sharp observer of the madness of antebellum America.
While McBride’s book fictionalized characters from American history, George Packer won the nonfiction award for “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” an often novelistic chronicle of the lives of real people who’ve witnessed the decline of the American economy over the last 35 years.
Packer thanked his many subjects for inviting him into their homes and “allowing me to tell some of what is going wrong in America and some of what’s going right.”
The event’s host, Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, called it “the Oscars of the book world.... But as Fran Lebowitz said, ‘It’s the Oscars without money.’”
National Book Award winners receive $10,000 and a bronze sculpture. Each finalist receives a prize of $1,000, a medal and a citation from the panel jury.
This year the National Book Foundation, which presents the award, tweaked the process, announcing long lists of 10 nominees for the first time in September before halving the lists to announce finalists in each category in October.
Also accepting an award was Mary Szybist, who won for poetry with her book “Incarnadine: Poems.” Judge Kay Ryan said her “lovely musical touch is light and exact enough to catch the weight and grind of love.”
The winner in the Young People’s Literature category was Cynthia Kadohata for “The Thing About Luck,” the story of a Japanese American girl growing up in a rural community who works to keep her family together as her parents leave to work in the harvest.
Earlier in the evening, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison stood onstage to present poet Maya Angelou, 85, with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
From a wheelchair, Angelou thanked her editor and said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
The novelist E.L. Doctorow, 82, was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Doctorow spoke about the digitalization of storytelling, in which “‘text’ is now a verb … and a ‘search engine’ is not an engine.”
“The techies don’t want to know that reading a book is the essence of interactivity,” Doctorow said. “It’s written in silence and read in silence.”