Let’s get one thing straight: the National Book Awards, held Wednesday at New York’s Marriott Marquis, are not the Oscars of publishing.
“There’s a big difference between this and the Academy Awards,” master of ceremonies Steve Martin said. “At the Academy Awards, you can really feel the greed and envy fill the air. The book awards, on the other hand, are held in New York.”
The other big difference this year is that unlike a typical Oscars, there were some surprises. Chinese-born author Ha Jin took home the fiction award for his love story “Waiting” (Pantheon), beating out favorites “Plainsong,” by Kent Haruf, and Jean Thompson’s “Who Do You Love?”
Ha’s Boston-based agents Lane Zachary and Todd Shuster, both in attendance, were hoping that buzz off of the book award and his background — Ha was a member of the People’s Liberation Army who moved to the U.S. with only a rudimentary understanding of English — might lead to a screen option for “Waiting.”
The award for nonfiction went to historian John W. Dower for “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II” (W.W. Norton & New Press). Young people’s literature went to Kimberly Willis Holt for “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” (Henry Holt and Co.), while the poetry honor went to Ai for “Vice: New and Selected Poems” (W.W. Norton & Co.).
Also receiving an award — and bestowing some Hollywood glamour on the event — was Oprah Winfrey, who took home the Gold Medal for her contributions to both reading and books through her book club. She wowed the authors and the publishing execs with a gracious acceptance that included spot-on impersonations of both Toni Morrison and a member of her studio audience from Gary, Ind.
“There are two qualifications for a book to be part of the book club,” Winfrey told the crowd. “I have to really, really like it, and the author has to be alive. I am not going to open that dead author door, it’s just too big.”
Quipped Martin as Winfrey left the stage: “I still think Ricki Lake should have won.”