The US National Book Awards: Unity in a Season of Division

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The US National Book Awards’ winners’ ceremony concludes with a quiet, articulate appeal for a ‘humanitarian cease-fire’ in Gaza.

National Book Award fiction winner Justin Torres is joined onstage in New York by writers who elected to make a respectful, soft-spoken appeal for a ‘humanitarian cease-fire,’ collectively and peacefully opposing ‘anti-Semitism, anti-Palestinian sentiment, and Islamophobia’ and demanding ‘a humanitarian cease-fire’ in Gaza. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

More on the 2023 National Book Awards:
US National Book Awards: David Steinberger’s Narrative
US National Book Awards: The 2023 Finalists

US National Book Foundation: Rita Dove Wins the Medal for Distinguished Contribution
US National Book Foundation: Bookseller Paul Yamazaki Wins the 2023 Literarian Medal

Oprah Winfrey: ‘Free Somebody Else’
Although there had been chatter about “protests” prior to the United States’ 74th National Book Awards at Cipriani Wall Street overnight in New York City, the predicted moment arrived at the very end of the evening Wednesday (November 15), and with dignity, grace, and an obviously profound respect for a direly destructive situation.

As Justin Torres arrived at the mic to accept his award in the Fiction category for Blackouts from Macmillan’s FSG, he invited to the stage his fellow writers, people who, he said, wanted to make a statement. While the vast roomful of attendees watched—until then exuberantly united in honoring the 74th anniversary edition of these awards—a group of honorees quietly gathered behind Torres.

Their message, delivered softly and without drama by Fiction finalist Aaliyah Bilal for the group:

“On behalf of the finalists, we oppose the ongoing bombardment of Gaza, and call for a humanitarian cease-fire to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians, particularly children.

“We oppose anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia, equally accepting the human dignity of all parties, knowing that further bloodshed does nothing to secure lasting peace in the future.

“Thank you.”

And with that, these “gentle, angry people,” as the old activist anthem would call them, had done what so many mass protests, noisy demonstrations, and violent encounters have not done: delivered a coherent, intelligent, unbiased message in support of life over conflict.

Steinberger: ‘All of Us’

David Steinberger, chairman of the National Book Foundation, speaks at the National Book Awards. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

The world, the National Book Foundation chairman David Steinberger said in his own comments Wednesday evening, “feels very divided.”

Steinberger said in one of a few earlier references to the crisis, “There’s a lot of sadness and anger and fear and my heart goes out to everyone who’s in pain. There’s a lot of pain out there.

“My wish for everyone who is with us tonight—people in the room and people who are joining us from their homes—is that books and our love of books can help us all find understanding, compassion, gratitude, and connection with one another, that our common love of books helps us to bring us all together. All of us.

“That’s my sincere wish for us tonight.” (See our interview with Steinberger, who is a key speaker in January at the inaugural NYU Advanced Publishers Institute.)

Winfrey: ‘Keep Our Books Right Where They Belong’

Oprah Winfrey, introduced by LeVar Burton, focuses on book bannings in the United States in her comments at the National Book Awards in New York City. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Following the presentation by Paul Yamazaki of the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community by Mitchell Kaplan, and Jericho Brown’s presentation to Rita Dove of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the audience heard from Oprah Winfrey, Steinberger, and National Book Foundation executive director Ruth Dickey.

Winfrey and the evening’s host this year, LeVar Burton, both focused on the dangers of censorship, so prominent in the United States’ recent surges of right-wing book-banning efforts.

“My hope,” Winfrey said, “is that kids will come to reading for the same reason that all of us in this room have come—to really to see themselves in characters, to feel recognized, to feel understood. And when someone feels understood, they can understand. They can pick up a book about people [with whom] they have nothing in common. And cry for them and root for them and celebrate with them. That’s how reading … opens us to the world, the whole world, not just our cozy corner of it.

“So let us vow to keep our books right where they belong and to reach everyone [allowing them] to choose for themselves what to read.”

The Evening’s Winners

Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

The five core categories of the awards then were presented before the traditional party took over following an especially smoothly presented formal awards ceremony.

Winners of the National Book Awards receive US$10,000, a bronze medal, and statue; finalists receive US$1,000 and a bronze medal; winners and finalists in the Translated Literature category will split the prize evenly between authors and translators.

Publishers submitted a total 1,931 books for this year’s National Book Awards.

The 2023 Young People’s Literature Winner

Dan Santat won the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category for his book A First Time for Everything from Macmillan / First Second.

The jurors for Young People’s Literature this year were Sarah Park Dahlen, Kyle Lukoff, Claudette S. McLinn (chair), Justin A. Reynolds, and Sabaa Tahir.

Publishers submitted a total of 328 books in the 2023 Young People’s Literature category, a notably increase from the 296 submissions made in this category in 2022.

The 2023 Translated Literature Winners

Stênio Gardel and translator Bruna Dantas Lobato, winners of the Translated Literature national Book Award for ‘The Words That Remain’ from New Vessel Press. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Stênio Gardel and Bruna Dantas Lobato won the Translated Literature Award for The Words That Remain from New Vessel Press, an award announced by the jury panel chair Jeremy Tiang.

After an emotional acceptance speech from the Brazilian Gardel, his translator, Bruna Dantas Lobato thanked their publisher, New Vessel Press, “for putting my name on the cover” of the book. Hashtag #NameTheTranslator, a reference to the still robust disagreement between many in publishing about the importance of giving translators book-cover credit for their work.

Since 2021, a growing movement of opinion in the world publishing industry has pressured publishers to name translators on the covers of books. You can read more about the London-based beginnings of this international effort here.

The jurors for the translation category this year were Geoffrey Brock, Arthur Malcolm Dixon, Cristina Rodriguez, T. Denean Sharpley Whiting, and Jeremy Tiang (chair).

Publisher interest in this category, added to the program in 2018, continues to grow. Publishers submitted a total 154 books for this category, up from 146 last year.

Our coverage of the Translated Literature longlist is here.

The 2023 Poetry Winner

Craig Santos Perez won the Poetry award for From Unincorporated Territory [åmot] from Omnidawn.

Jurors in this year’s Poetry category for the National Book Awards were Rick Barot, Heid E. Erdrich (chair), Jonathan Farmer, Raina J. León, and Solmaz Sharif.

Publishers submitted a total of 295 books for consideration in this category this year.

Our coverage of the Poetry longlist is here.

The 2023 Nonfiction Winner

Ned Blackhawk speaks after winning the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Ned Blackhawk won the National Book Award in Nonfiction for The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History, his win greeted by loud, adamant roars of approval from the Yale University Press table at the ceremony. (See our story about the ongoing 2023 University Press Week from AUPresses here.)

Blackhawk made an especially compelling and soft-spoken appeal for Native America and its unique value as a formidable and singular source of context for the American experiment.

“It is difficult,” Blackhawk said, “to convey how beleaguered, impoverished, and generally marginalized Native nations have often been in contemporary America,” especially in an era when the dynamics of such oppression can be illuminating of so many contemporary social and political struggles in the States.

Jurors in this year’s Nonfiction category for the National Book Awards were Hanif Abdurraqib, Ada Ferrer (chair), James Fugate, Sarah Schulman, and Sonia Shah.

Publishers submitted a total 638 nonfiction books for the 2023 prize, making it by far the most heavily contested category of the five.

Our coverage of the Nonfiction longlist is here.

The 2023 Fiction Winner

As mentioned, Justin Torres won the National Book Award in Fiction for Blackouts Macmillan’s FSG.

Jurors in this year’s Fiction category for the National Book Awards were Steph Cha, Calvin Crosby, Silas House, Mat Johnson (chair), and Helena María Viramontes. Publishers submitted 496 books in this category.

Our coverage of the Fiction longlist is here.

LeVar Burton Calls Out Moms for Liberty

Before Oprah Winfrey weighed in at Wednesday’s gala-fundraiser benefit ceremony on the unconscionable challenges to freedom of expression and publication in the United States’ book bannings, the evening’s host, actor and longtime reading-advocate LeVar Burton triggered big laughs in the crowd by asking if anyone from Moms for Liberty was in the house.

Moms for Liberty is an American conservative political organization described as a group that “advocates against school curricula that mention LGBTQIA+ rights, race, and ethnicity, critical race theory, and discrimination.”

“Are there any moms for liberty in the house?” Burton asked, waiting for a show of hands.

“Moms for liberty? No. Good. Then this is the best room on the planet to be in tonight.”

LeVar Burton hosts the 2023 National Book Awards in New York City, drawing laughs by calling for any members of the Moms for Liberty organization to identify themselves. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

More from Publishing Perspectives on the National Book Awards in the United States is here and more on the huge field of international book awards and prizes is here. More from us on the United States’ market is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.