A Big Night for Books

The National Book Awards are the publishing world’s Oscars and last night they delivered with a tearful Patti Smith, a dapper Tom Wolfe, and a guest appearance from Elmo. Alice Gregory on the party and winners.

11.18.10 10:40 AM ET

Patti Smith might have won a National Book Award but it was Tom Wolfe who serenaded over 600 guests at Cipriani’s Wall Street last night in celebration of the 61st annual National Book Awards.

A solid hour of bellini-sipping schmoozing preempted the ceremony itself, with press snapping photographs and tuxedoed men and bedazzled women clustering about. Finally, after many intimate “talk later’s” and warm handshakes, everyone migrated to their assigned tables.

But don’t let graceful chatter and kind hellos fool you. As former Random House executive editor in chief chief and author of A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, Dan Menaker confessed, “There are always agendas in publishing! I don't have any, tonight, but in publishing office hours are never over—so there are agents here and publishers who are talking to each other, and even if it's just small talk, it's big talk. There's also, you know, the spirit of celebration, literary life, and all that.”

Author, comedian, actor, and, Andy Borowitz, was the MC for the night. This was the second year the self-described “pro bono asshole” hosted the event. “A lateral move,” he explained, “or, in today’s publishing industry, a win.” Borowitz doled out many easy but appreciative laughs: The Girl Who Shat In The Woods; “I write under the penname ‘Malcolm Gladwell.’ ”

But it was time to get serious. Children’s book author Jon Sciezka took the stage—joined by a typically pronoun-challenged Elmo puppet (in a tux) and his handler Kevin Clash—to present the 2010 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community to Joan Ganz Cooney, who started Sesame Street in 1969. In her acceptance speech, she stressed the importance of the very earliest kind of education: “Parents and care providers have to be reminded that no game experience can compare to being read to by a loving adult."

Next up was a start of the show (and co-founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast)—Tina Brown. A low-hanging subtext for the entire night was the recent announcement of The Daily Beast/Newsweek merger, so Brown was relieved of any need to shop talk. Her audience had that topic covered. Instead, she was left to praise Tom Wolfe and award him with the Outstanding Contribution to American Letters. Brown hailed Wolfe as “the great card sharp of American journalism” who we never tire of with his firework-like prose and amazing ability to reinvent himself in each decade. The monochromatic man of letters himself bounded on stage to a burst of applause.

“There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book,” said Patti Smith.

Wolfe looked proud, even a bit giddy. His speech was just short of full autobiography—starting with his first job as an obituary writer in a town his father had never heard of, then on to parties with Robert Lowell and Antonio Carlos Jobim (at which point Wolfe began singing “The Girl from Ipanema”), a visit to a famous New York gangster, and then the night he invited himself to Leonard Bernstein’s fundraiser for the Black Panthers and right into literary history with the “Radical Chic.” It clocked in at well over the six minutes he verbally allotted for himself. This was, mostly though, to everyone’s pleasure.

Gallery: National Book Awards Ceremony

It was time for dinner, but also for din. The room suddenly got much noisier—there was a lot of prediction going on and surely a collective Franzen-related conversational quota to fill. Once the plates were cleared, the ceremony commenced with what we had all been waiting for: the National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction. Borowitz told all the nominees to be proud if they won—no more of this “humbled” nonsense.

And he was right: the winners should be proud. For Young People’s Literature, Kathryn Erskine for Mockingbird; for poetry, Terrance Hayes for Lighthead; for nonfiction (and with a roar of delight from the crowd) Patti Smith for Just Kids, her memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe; and finally for fiction the surprise winner Jaimy Gordon for Lord of Misrule. Patti Smith, tear-stained and winded, gave the most dramatic speech of the four winners, accepting on behalf of her former-Scribner-clerk-self. She knew her audience: “There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book.”

Grove/Atlantic publisher, and veteran award ceremony attendee, Morgan Entrekin predicted the rest of the night to a T: “All these old people are gonna leave; they're gonna flee for the door at 10:15, so you know, there's an open bar, so I’m going. Let's get some of these young people in here to drink up the booze and have a good time!” Like clockwork, the well-heeled left to go home, only to be replaced with a younger set, arriving just in time for the after party. The coat check, full of minks minutes before was suddenly hung with more Penguin tote bags than an F Train at rush hour. And so continued literature’s big night…

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Alice Gregory lives in Brooklyn. She's written for This Recording, n+1,, The Awl's Splitsider, and The Economist's More Intelligent Life, among other publications.