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Irishman wins National Book Award for New York novel

November 19, 2009

Colum McCann

Irish novelist Colum McCann took America’s most prestigious literary prize, the National Book Award for fiction, last night in Manhattan, reports the Associated Press. He won for Let the Great World Spin, his “act of hope” about 10 ordinary New Yorkers in the 1970s.

McGann, who has said he wrote the novel in response to the events of 9/11, uses the real life stunt of high-wire artist Philippe Petit. In 1974, Petit ilegally walked a tight rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, drawing an awed crowd in the streets below.

Accepting the award, McCann praised “the generosity ” of American fiction and of the American people, and dedicated the prize to fellow Irish immigrant, Frank McCourt, who died in July.

“As fiction writers and people who believe in the word, we have to enter the anonymous corners of human experience to make that little corner right,” McCann said, according to The New York Times.

Other winners in the 60th anniversary edition of the prize: T.J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, for nonfction; Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies, for poetry; Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice, for young people’s literature.

Gore Vidal, now 84, received an award for “distinguished contribution to American letters,” while the considerably younger Dave Eggers accepted a prize for outstanding service to the American literary community. In addition to his own books, Eggers is the founder of an influential independent publishing house, McSweeney’s, and 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing center for young people.

And, in the National Book Award’s first prize voted by readers, Flannery O’Connor was named the best winner of the first 60 years. Her Complete Stories beat out books by luminaries such as Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Thomas Pynchon and William Faulkner.

The annual celebration of American literature was clouded by worrisome business and technological trends that some see as a threat to writing and publishing. Stiles, for example, thanked all the copy editors, editorial assistants and marketers at Knopf.

“The advent of the e-book is fooling people into thinking that none of these people are necessary anymore,” Stiles said. “If they cease to exist, the books will only be worth the paper they are not printed on.”

Eggers, however, said we live in “a golden age” of the written word. If the audience could see some of the young writers he’s met through 826 Valencia, he said, it would be “full of optimism.”

Host Andy Borowitz, a humorist who writes for The New Yorker, injected some levity into the proceedings. He joked that Sarah Palin’s just-released best-selling autobiography Going Rogue is the front runner for next year’s National Book Award for fiction.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2009 2:14 pm

    OOOO AH, Way to go brother.

  2. alexis permalink
    November 19, 2009 3:41 pm

    I heard about that book somewhere….NPR perhaps?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 19, 2009 5:04 pm

      NPR did a big piece on McCann a few months ago, so quite likely. I have not read this book myself, but it was well reviewed, and I may get to it yet.

  3. rachel permalink
    November 19, 2009 4:03 pm

    This is a strange picture.

    I tried to watch a movie about Philippe Petit called Man On Wire. But I rented it from Blockbuster and it kept skipping and wouldn’t let me. Very rude. This renews my interest.

    • alexis permalink
      November 19, 2009 4:43 pm

      It IS a strange picture. I do not like it. It looks like he is in a play or something.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        November 19, 2009 5:08 pm

        That’s why I picked it — it’s not a standard publicity portrait. My guess, he’s at a reading, fielding questions from the audience. But I have to say, there is something at least a little actorish in all the photos of McCann I had to choose from. Which doesn’t mean anything, except that maybe he has a small knack for playing to the camera.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 19, 2009 5:07 pm

      Man on a Wire is supposed to be very good, but you know, so many movies, so little time. That’s how it goes, right? The novel sounds quite promising.

      • evanjamesroskos permalink
        November 19, 2009 7:33 pm

        i read McCann’s novel back when it first came out (I’m an Amazon Vine reviewer, so I got a preview copy. weee!) It’s very very good, but I became disinterested in the prostitute characters for a variety of reasons that may be due to my own reading tastes. Still, there are some great passages and the stuff about Petit is great.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 19, 2009 10:37 pm

    Evan, I’ll definitely add it to my list of things I hope to read by and by — more for your recommendation than the National Book Award.

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