The winners of the 2017 National Book Awards were announced this evening in New York City. Jesmyn Ward took home the award in fiction for her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner), and Frank Bidart won the award in poetry for Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Masha Gessen won in nonfiction for The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead Books), and Robin Benway won in young people’s literature for her novel Far From the Tree (HarperCollins). Each of the winners will receive $10,000.
Actress Cynthia Nixon emceed the ceremony and opened the evening by emphasizing the importance of books. “Books are among the most powerful weapons we have against what has lately felt like a hostile world,” she said. “For some of us books provide a welcome escape or a valuable resource for arming us with indispensable knowledge of history. But it also offers something we so desperately need: broadened perspective…. They cultivate empathy, they inspire action, they make us feel less alone, and they expose us to an experience we couldn’t imagine on our own.”
The winners of the 2017 awards echoed this sentiment. “Writing the poems was how I survived,” said Bidart upon winning the poetry prize. “I hope that the journeys these poems go on will help others survive as well.” In her acceptance speech, Ward addressed the crowd and said, “You looked at me and the people I love and the people I write about…. and you saw your grief, your love, your losses, your regret, your joy, your hope. I am deeply grateful, and I hope to continue this conversation with all of you for all of our days.”
Earlier in the evening, Bill Clinton presented the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community to Richard Robinson, the chairman, president, and CEO of Scholastic. “All over this country there are people who are forming new neural networks at the speed of light, stimulated by books that wouldn’t be here if not for [Robinson’s] day job at Scholastic and his commitment to this kind of philanthropic work,” said Clinton.
The foundation also honored Annie Proulx with the 2017 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Actress Anne Hathaway, who starred in the 2005 film adaptation of Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain,” presented the award to the writer, who is the author of several story collections and novels, most recently Barkskins (Scribner, 2016). The annual $10,000 award is given for lifetime achievement, which Proulx wryly noted in her acceptance speech. “Although this is award is given for lifetime achievement,” she said, “I didn’t start writing until I was fifty-eight.”
Established in 1950, the National Book Awards are among the literary world’s most prestigious prizes. The 2016 winners included poet Daniel Borzutzky, fiction writer Colson Whitehead, and nonfiction writer Ibram X. Kendi.