Last night’s National Book Awards ceremony in New York was a long exercise in self-congratulation. Stephen Greenblatt, a pioneer of the New Historicist school of literary scholarship, won the nonfiction award for The Swerve, a far-fetched popularizing account of how one Roman poet turned all of Europe away from medieval religiosity toward modern secularism. The award was notable, because Greenblatt was the only “white male” (as his type is now called) to win last night. (Greenblatt was allowed on the stage because his criticism, grounded in Marxist presumptions about literature and ideology, is vaguely radical.)
The remaining awards were handed out according to the terms of multiculturalism. Thanhha Lai won in the young adult category for Inside Out & Back Again, an autobiographical novel in verse about a young woman (not unlike Lai herself) whose family flees Vietnam upon the fall of Saigon and resettles in Alabama.
But the awards in fiction and poetry caused the celebration. Let’s turn to Ron Charles, fiction critic for the Washington Post, for the story:
Nikky Finney, a 54-year-old poet who is praised for her “engagement with political activism,” won the poetry award. (Examples of her poetry can be found here and here.) In her acceptance speech, Finney explained that every poem she writes is “haunted” by the knowledge that “black people . . . were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate.”
The fiction award went to Jesmyn Ward for Salvage the Bones, the story of a poor family’s last few days before Hurricane Katrina strikes the Mississippi coast. The narrator is a 15-year-old girl, although she sounds like a student in Nikky Finney’s poetry workshop:
When mama first explained to me what a hurricane was, I thought that all the animals ran away, that they fled the storms before they came, that they put their noses to the wind days before and knew. That maybe they stuck their tongues out, pink and warm, to taste, to make sure. That the deer looked at their companions and leapt. That the foxes chattered to themselves, rolled their shoulders, and started off. And maybe the bigger animals do. But now I think that other animals, like the squirrels and the rabbits, don’t do that at all. Maybe the small don’t run. Maybe the small pause on their branches, the pine-lined earth, nose up, catch that coming storm air that would smell like salt to them, like salt and clean burning fire, and they prepare like us.
And that’s only the first half of the paragraph. The narrator goes on “imagining” (if that’s the right word) how animals prepare for a hurricane. Salvage the Bones is thin on felt life, but thick with verbal substitutes for it.
Being nominated for the National Book Award, Ward said, caught her off guard. “It took a while to convince me that this was really happening,” she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “My first book [Where the Line Bleeds] had flown under the radar. And, of course, I’m from the South, I’m black and I’m a woman — and all those things push me into a niche that is outside the realm of experience for a lot of literary people.”
The exact opposite is true, of course. Black women are smack in America’s literary mainstream. Despite Ron Charles’s oily toadyish compliments to the “spectacularly powerful African American women” who won awards last night, their victories were the furthest thing from “historic.” By now the honoring of black women writers is an established convention of literary culture in America.
Alice Walker “walked off” with the National Book Award for The Color Purple in 1983 — almost three decades ago. When Toni Morrison’s Beloved was passed over for the same award five years later, 48 “black critics and black writers” — that’s how they described themselves — wrote to the New York Times Book Review, protesting “the oversight and harmful whimsy” by which any white male could possibly be preferred to Morrison. “The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied,” they declared. Not quite ten weeks later the “legitimate need” was redressed, and Beloved was given the Pulitzer Prize. And in 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. “She is the first black woman to receive the prize,” the Times helpfully noted in its front-page story.
Literary awards to black women writers are not historic. For nearly three decades, critical attention and honors have been demanded for some writers (and granted) on the basis of their race and sex. The day is long past when the identification of American writers by race and sex became a mental habit, a social custom; it is now a deep structural element in the grammar of literary criticism. Indeed, the self-congratulation implicit in the trumpeting of the “historic” achievements of black women writers is, by now, thirty years on, a stock reaction like tears when lovers are reunited or laughter when yet another stand-up comic says the word f–k.