This year, the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes ceremony will be free and open to all, because it will be virtual.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in hundreds of canceled and rescheduled entertainment events, ceremonies, galas and festivals, including the Times’ Festival of Books, which was slated for next weekend on the University of Southern California campus before being postponed until October. But historic crises and unforeseen changes have a way of forcing creative alternatives.
For the first time since launching in 1980, the L.A. Times will host its annual Book Prizes ceremony — of sorts — virtually. The awards presentation, which usually kicks off the Festival of Books, will begin at 8 a.m. Pacific on April 17, when the L.A. Times Books Twitter page will announce the 14 winners, followed by brief video acceptance speeches from award recipients.
The awards recognize outstanding literary works published last year in science and technology, history, poetry, biography, fiction, young-adult literature and more. Debuting this year is the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. Video speeches also will be shared by three previously announced winners — Walter Mosley for the Robert Kirsch Award, Keren Taylor for the Innovator’s Award and Emily Bernard for the Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose.
Finalists in the other categories include Colson Whitehead, Ronan Farrow, Laura Lippman, George Packer, Marlon James and Steph Cha.
The prizes have always been handed out at a physical ceremony, said Ann Binney, the Times’ special projects coordinator. “Going back to the very beginning, there was maybe a lunch or a dinner,” she said, “and it was a smaller affair.” In the late 1990s, the celebration expanded and opened its doors to the public. Upwards of 1,000 guests from the publishing and literary worlds, as well as members of the general public, attended the event at UCLA’s Royce Hall, where the festivities took place before moving to USC.
“It seems people are at their most creative in these times,” said Binney about the new format. “In our case with the book prizes, in just a few weeks we found a new way to celebrate all these book prize finalists and winners virtually. And we all came together, with our various expertise, and came up with this idea.”
“While we’re really going to miss the community that gathers in person,” she added, “we’ve reinvented the celebration for the moment that we’re in right now.”
Other major award ceremonies have been forced to adjust their plans after strict measures against group gatherings were implemented across the country.
The Obie Awards ceremony, which honors off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions and artists, was originally scheduled for May 18 but now will be virtual, though details have not been announced. The money that would have been spent on a traditional ceremony will go to artists whose plays were canceled because of the virus.
The Pulitzer Prize Board announced on Monday that it will postpone announcements of this year’s winners by two weeks to give journalists on the board who are covering the pandemic more time to evaluate finalists; its annual awards luncheon, traditionally held in May, was pushed to the fall.
The Mystery Writers of America also had to cancel its Edgar Awards banquet and symposium but will announce winners on its YouTube page April 30. In the meantime, the organization has been sharing videos of authors reading their nominated works on its Twitter page.
The National Book Critics Circle Awards, typically presented during a New York City event, announced this year’s winners via a press release and canceled its finalists’ reading and ceremony days before they were scheduled. Its annual gala was postponed until September.
But virtual press releases are easy to ignore, said Kenneth Turan, former Times film critic and director of the book prizes since 1996. “They don’t have the impact of something you can watch,” he said. “For people who love books, I find the ceremony extremely exciting every year. ... It gives people something to see, something to remember why books are such an exciting part of life.”
In the many years Turan has directed and attended the ceremony, he’s always found something surprising.
“Someone will make a speech that will resonate with you, that will stay with you,” he said, “and it never ceases to amaze me the kind of personalities of the people involved, the personalities of the winners, what the people who write these books look like and sound like.”
This year, those personalities will be accessible to anyone with a phone, even as their owners are confined to their homes.