Garrison Keillor noted during his opening speech for last night's National Book Awards that this week is the opening of another Harry Potter film. He said, "Most of us have stood in Barnes & Noble and opened a Harry Potter book, read a few pages and said: 'I could have done that. I could have done that while doing all the other things that I do. Why didn't I?'"
An always curmudgeonly and brilliant Norman Mailer, in receiving the foundation's medal for a lifetime contribution to American Letters (always a sign you're on the way out the door), said that he felt a bit "like a carriage maker watching the advent of the automobile, feeling that his art is being left behind."
And then, after everyone was done with the caviar and the self-pity about the state of Literature Today, they gave out the Awards! The surprise win of the night was in Fiction, with William T. Vollman's partly historical novel, Europe Central. The author, estimated behind E.L. Doctorow and Mary Gaitskill but ahead of, er, the other two nominees (which is almost exactly how the New York Times phrased it), said he wasn't expecting to win, and so hadn't prepared a speech. How humble!
And Joan Didion surprised no one by winning the Non-Fiction category with her heart-rending The Year of Magical Thinking, about her response to the death and serious illness of her husband and daughter (who died just weeks before the book was published). Best Young People's Literature was bestowed to Jeanne Birdsall for her debut novel, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy. And the Poetry award went to Pulitzer Prize winning W. S. Merwin for his new volume Migration: New and Selected Poems. Merwin has been nominated seven previous times for the National Book Awards, so that basically makes him the Michael Caine of Poetry.
And then everyone got drunk and catty about each other's novels. Or so we would like to imagine.