Updated at 11:05 p.m. ET
At a glitzy gala in New York City on Wednesday night, four writers emerged with one of the world’s most illustrious literary prizes, the National Book Award: Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, won for fiction; Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, for nonfiction; Frank Bidart’s Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, for poetry; and Robin Benway’s Far from the Tree, for young people’s literature.
In addition to a bronze medal and statue, each winner receives $10,000 with the distinction. That said, the finalists don’t go home bereft — each author gets $1,000 and a bronze medal of their own.
You can find the full list of finalists at the bottom of this page, with the winners highlighted in bold.
Ward’s National Book Award marked her second time winning the prize, after her novel Salvage the Bones won in 2011. But she said in her acceptance speech she’s also received a fair amount of rejections.
“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners. As my career progressed and I got some affirmations, I still encountered that mindset every now and again,” Ward told the crowd.
To those who asked what they they could possibly have in common with her characters, “you answered, ‘Plenty,’ ” she told the other authors, editors and booksellers assembled in the room. “You looked at me, at the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women and men — and you saw yourself. You saw your grief, your love, your losses, your regrets, your joy, your hope.”
Gessen, for her part, expressed surprise The Future Is History, an exhaustive chronicle of four lives in the midst of a totalitarian reemergence in Russia, came away with the nonfiction prize. “I never thought a Russia book could actually be longlisted or shortlisted for the National Book Award,” she noted in her acceptance. “But of course things have, um, changed.”
Bidart did not win the lifetime achievement award — more on that award later — but you could be forgiven for seeing his poetry prize as something similar. Bidart’s Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 gathered work from eight books’ worth of material, a career of more than five decades, into a single authoritative volume.
It was not just a life of poetry contained in this book, but also a life made by poetry, Bidart suggested. “I realized during the past month that I’m almost twice as old as any of the other finalists. Writing the poems,” Bidart told the crowd in New York City, “was how I survived.”
“One premise of art is that anything personal, seen deeply enough, becomes general, becomes impersonal,” he added. “I hope that the journeys these poems go on will help others to survive, as well.”
The young people’s literature prize went to Benway’s Far from the Tree, a story of an adoptee in search of her biological siblings — and how their understanding of family shifts amid their difficult attempts at reunion. The writer of a half-dozen young adult novels, Benway focused her acceptance speech on her own family — especially those family members she has lost recently, without losing the lessons they offered.
Her grandmother taught her “creativity is not inspiration, it’s not that bolt of lightning,” Benway said. “It’s about getting up and making the coffee and getting to work to find the room that that lightning lit up for them for that one moment.”
“I’m really good at making the coffee,” she added. “I’m trying to get better at that last thing.”
Earlier in the night, the prevailing theme among the previously announced winners was clear: the notion of the book as a beacon in a difficult time.
“We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. We live in a Kafkaesque time,” said Annie Proulx, the novelist who won the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, the National Book Foundation’s slightly verbose name for their lifetime achievement award.
Proulx added the distinction Wednesday night to an already long list of honors, having racked up virtually every major award devoted to American writers. Proulx’s “epic, singular talent” — in the words of the woman who introduced her, actress Anne Hathaway — had already earned her another National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for her 1993 novel, The Shipping News.
Our time may look bleak, Proulx said in her acceptance speech, listing ills from the destruction of the environment to increasingly tribal political divisions, “but we keep on trying — because there’s nothing else to do.”
She proposed hope, the “indispensable silver lining” books can offer. As she noted, that hope could be seen embodied even in her presence on the stage. Although she may be receiving a lifetime achievement award, “I didn’t start writing until I was 58,” she said. “So if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, go ahead.”
Scholastic President and CEO Richard Robinson, speaking before Proulx in receiving the literarian award for outstanding service to the American literary community, noted that he indeed had tried writing: “I always wanted to receive a prize for a novel,” he said, smiling, “and I wrote several of them — unpublished.”
Instead, for decades he has stood at the helm of Scholastic, a publishing company founded by his father in 1920 and geared toward children’s literature. Robinson, who was introduced by former President Bill Clinton, said his mission at Scholastic has been — and will continue to be — ensuring equal access to education and opening books to a wide array of experiences: “That’s an old story that’s always new.”
“We must make sure all schools have the resources they need to lift all children,” he said.
Then, he offered another note of hope to balance Proulx’s.
“Tonight’s battle cry: reading for all.”
Erica Armstrong Dunbar: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Frances FitzGerald: The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
Masha Gessen: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
David Grann: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Nancy MacLean: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
Frank Bidart: Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016
Leslie Harrison: The Book of Endings
Layli Long Soldier: WHEREAS
Shane McCrae: In the Language of My Captor
Danez Smith: Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
Young People’s Literature
Elana K. Arnold: What Girls Are Made Of
Robin Benway: Far from the Tree
Erika L. Sánchez: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Rita Williams-Garcia: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground
Ibi Zoboi: American Street