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Politics and art made uneasy bedfellows at the Marriot Marquis in New York last Wednesday night, as roughly 1000 publishers and writers gathered to eat steak, gossip, and award the country’s second-oldest literary prize. Thanks to the selection of the 9/11 report as a finalist — and the appearance of 9/11 commission chair Thomas Kean to accept the award should it win — the normally staid event was awash with security detail, whose suits did nothing to disguise deltoids and biceps designed to take a bullet. Host Garrison Keillor didn’t realize it, but he spoke to the embattled, watched feeling all these ear-wires and discrete American flag lapel buttons gave attendees when he held up a bronze statuette and joked: "This weighs about as much as a bowling ball. A lot of these prizes are little Lucite things, but if you hit somebody with one of these things they’ll go down and stay down."
In spite of every attempt by the fiction judges to inspire violence, the event went off without a melee and part-time Mainer Lily Tuck was crowned queen of her fellow "unknowns" for her novel, "The News from Paraguay," which is news to most of America.
After all the harangues by critics in the press, it was oddly humbling to have judging chair Rick Moody stand up in a suit of banker stripe, sans glasses and much of his hair, and make an argument that their controversial group of finalists were indeed exemplars of language and imagination, not beneficiaries of a Plot Against Philip Roth. And even if you could quibble with that — were these books really better than Roth’s masterpiece? — the festivities’ half-hearted stab at glamour made the personal impact of the prize manifest. Here were five writers, gussied up far beyond their usual fare, all too aware that this might be their only moment in the public eye.
Still, how do you insist on the primacy of art to be art alone when there is rightward cultural drift to resist at the same time? This question flickered through the crowd as, one by one, speakers alternated between hymns to the pleasures of reading and swipes at the PATRIOT Act. Children’s author Judy Blume took the stage in a plunging velour gown and dangly earrings to accept a lifetime achievement award and described how she had become a Dr. Ruth for teens in an age when a growing part of the country appears to think that any sex at all is very, very bad.
"Dear Judy," one reader apparently once wrote to the bestselling author, "please send me the facts of life in number order."
Would that she could, but even the poets — that group normally famed for their wisdom and long-sightedness — came up with a blank over whether reading could change the current political climate. Speaking in the VIP reception beforehand, poetry winner Jean Valentine suggested more public readings might help, but then said, "No, that’s what we do anyway." Accepting the award for nonfiction, Kevin Boyle was grimmer yet about the impact literature can have in a country where fewer and fewer people read. "The system of racial injustice I write about is still largely in place, in almost all of urban America. So [my book] confirms part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. once said — the arc of the moral universe is very long, but it doesn’t always bend toward justice."
John Freeman can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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