The 2016 National Book Awards, which took place days after Donald Trump was elected president, were defiant, if a bit mournful. They were also very much of the moment. Hosted by Larry Wilmore, nearly every speech reckoned with what had just happened—and how writers should respond. Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award for Fiction and told the audience “They can’t break me—BMF—because I’m a Bad Mother Fucker.” Congressman John Lewis won the National Book Award and choked back tears recalling being turned away from the library as a teenager. It’s rare for the National Book Awards—a ritzy, expensive event in which the publishing industry honors itself—to feel zeitgeist-y, but the 2016 National Book Awards felt zeitgeist-y. Maybe everything did back then.
The 2017 National Book Awards were not defiant or particularly mournful—instead there was a palpable exhaustion, as well as a valiant attempt to act as if everything was, well, normal. That is, I suppose, an expression of the current zeitgeist as well.
Politics did creep in, of course. But largely as an afterthought, a box to be checked. Cynthia Nixon, the evening’s host, acknowledged the past year being “overwhelming and disheartening, exhausting, for immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ groups,” and others and that books can be a “welcome escape” or a “valuable resource” for those fighting injustice. Bill Clinton, whose name has been in the news recently not because of his achievements or his wife’s but because of Harvey Weinstein, largely stayed clear of politics, instead honoring the publishing supply chain and the value of reading in poor communities. Annie Proulx, who was given a Lifetime Achievement Award, gave a fiery and charming speech, decrying the “garbage-laden tsunami of raw data” that is social media. Masha Gessen, who won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Future Is History, joked that she “never thought that a Russia book could be long listed or shortlisted for the National Book Awards but of course things have… changed.” Jesmyn Ward, who won the National Book Award for Fiction for Sing, Unburied, Sing, gave the most moving speech of the evening, about overcoming readers who are skeptical about what they could possibly have in common with her characters, who are poor, black, and from the South.
Perseverance rather than defiance was the unspoken theme of the 68th National Book Awards: Artists and writers attempting to create in the midst of a “garbage-laden tsunami” of current events.
The full list of 2017 National Book Award winners:
- Young People’s Literature: Robin Benway, Far from the Tree
- Poetry: Frank Bidart, Half-Light
- Nonfiction: Masha Gessen, The Future Is History
- Fiction: Jesmyn Ward: Sing, Unburied, Sing