The Write Stuff
The big surprise at Wednesday night’s National Book Awards (a.k.a., the literary Oscars) was that Tom Wolfe’s mammoth best-seller “A Man in Full” lost the event’s top award to Alice McDermott, who took the fiction prize for her novel “Charming Billy.” Wolfe’s ballyhooed tome, which won a nomination even before it hit bookstores, was considered a shoo-in.
Wolfe was in Atlanta and couldn’t attend the black-tie gala. But McDermott voiced the crowd’s mood when she accepted the award with the words, “Heavens, what a surprise.” McDermott admitted she hadn’t written an acceptance speech because she never dreamed that she’d win.
The storied event at Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis was hosted by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who took her emcee duties to heart. A la Billy Crystal, Wasserstein threatened to perform a medley of songs based on the evening’s nominations for best work of fiction. She went on to poke fun of the crowd’s sartorial lapses as if she were a member of Joan Rivers’ style police.
After the rack of lamb but before the event’s conclusion, Edward Ball’s moving “Slaves in the Family” won the nonfiction prize over the expected winner, Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.” Louis Sachar, author of “Holes,” won the Young People’s Literature award, and Gerald Stern won the Poetry Award for “This Time: New and Selected Poems.”
The highlight of the evening came from John Updike, who received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The aging literary legend began his remarks by quoting from a less-than-flattering description of him written by the night’s distant star, Tom Wolfe. Considering the purported rivalry between the two authors, maybe Wolfe’s absence was a good thing.