The National Book Awards, the U.S. publishing industry's highest honor for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature, can change an author's career or rocket a book's sales figures overnight. One surprise winner emerged at this year's ceremony, held Wednesday while literary giant Norman Mailer was celebrated for lifetime achievement.
Garrison Keillor, the American author and host of the 2005 National Book Awards, summed up exactly why publishers so covet this honor when he called it "the National Cash Register Awards." Displayed on a book jacket, the gold sticker signifying the winner can boost sales, sometimes astronomically, he said "this is an award that if you win it, it will appear in the second paragraph of your obituary -- unless you are convicted of a felony, in which case it will appear in the third paragraph."
Last year, the awards were criticized for honoring too many unknown authors. This year celebrity finalists included E.L. Doctorow and Joan Didion.
Two of the evening's best known literary giants appeared on stage together as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison presented a lifetime achievement award to Norman Mailer. Ms. Morrison said the history of American literature in the 20th and early 21st century would be incomplete and inaccurate without Mr. Mailer's work. She also teased the sometimes volatile writer for his pugnacious stances in the past. "Not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race," she said.
Mr. Mailer became world famous at the age of 25 for his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead," based on his experiences in World War Two. Some 30 works later, he has won the National Book Award and two prestigious Pulitzer Prizes for his innovative approach to both fiction and nonfiction. White haired and using a cane in each hand after recovering from heart surgery, the 82-year-old author warned that the great novel is becoming endangered.
"The great novel will kill no time on airplane trips. They are not good page turners. They are in danger of becoming a footnote to our technological, cybernetic and advertising world. The good serious novel is now inimical to the needs of this market place. The purpose of a novel is not, however, to cater to one's passing needs, but to enter one's life. Even alter it," he said.
A serious, 800-page novel, comprised of a sprawling series of intertwined stories about Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II, was the surprise winner in the fiction category. No one appeared more surprised than the author of "Europe Central" himself, William T. Vollmann. "I thought I would lose so I didn't prepare a speech," he said.
Mr. Vollmann explained he didn't start writing the book until 1998 but that its genesis goes back to elementary school when he saw a film about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
"Later on I understood I was partly German. I thought, 'Am I somehow guilty for this?' I probably had relatives over there who had something to do with the Third Reich. I have really tried for many years to put myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, or whether I could have done this. That's what this book was about. I'm very happy that it's over and I don't have to think about it anymore," he said.
A deeply personal memoir by acclaimed political and social critic Joan Didion captured the non-fiction award. "The Year of Magical Thinking" recounts the sudden death of Ms. Didion's husband as she tended to her only daughter's grave illness. Her daughter died after the book was published.
This year's non-fiction category had the largest number of nominees ever, especially daunting for the judges who were asked to read 542 books in little more than three months and then pick five finalists.