Get to Know Your National Book Awards Winners

by Hannah Nelson-Teutsch

On Wednesday night, the 2014 National Book Award winners were crowned in four categories. Some of the prizes were more expected — Evan Osnos' nonfiction win, for instance — while others were more surprising. In what the bookmakers would call an "upset," Redeployment by former U.S. Marine Phil Klay snagged the fiction honor, beating out the overwhelming favorite, Marilynne Robinson's Lila. The other two winners, Jacqueline Woodson for young people's lit and Louise Glück in poetry, came out of two heavily contentious fields where anything could have happened.

There was one more person who took home an accolade — Ursula Le Guin, who picked up her lifetime achievement award. Le Guin stole the show, delivering the most (and perhaps the only) incendiary speech in National Book Award history to heaps of praise (and the rapture of this particular writer — see below).

So, now that our winners have been picked and you have a new pile of award-winning books to read, it’s time to get to know your NBA champs — the literary variety, not the Lakers. And, luckily for you, I've got a primer on the winners. These folks have more to offer than the usual literary brilliance and boring acceptance speeches, as you'll see. Let's review:

Phil Klay for Redeployment (Fiction)

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Speaking from the podium after winning the National Book Award for Redeployment, Phil Klay reminded us all that “War is too strange to be processed alone.” And, with his short story collection documenting the pain, horror, boredom, camaraderie, moral injury, and philosophical magnitude of serving as a Marine in the Iraq War, Klay reminds us all that a veteran is not merely a victim, a war is not solely a political hot potato, and coming home isn't always what it's cracked up to be. While the rest of the country may be turning its back on Iraq in favor of immigration and the next hot topic in American politics, there has never been a more important moment to acknowledge the stories of those who have fought for our country in a war we couldn't wholly condone and come home to pay the price.

Klay, named one of the National Book Foundation's 3 Under 35, attended Dartmouth College and Hunter College's MFA program. He served in Iraq for 13 months when he was 21. I love this from Michelle Dean's profile of Klay, explaining his relationship to writing: "He had written before, he says, and when he had finished his service he simply went back to it."

In between writing and more writing, Klay joined the Marines to honor his sincere belief in the power of military service to change the lives of millions of lives around the world. Klay is serious about advocating for veterans, and for literature. But he's not all serious all the time. For instance:

Evan Osnos for Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in New China (Nonfiction)

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As a staff writer for The New Yorker, a Harvard Graduate, and a lifelong reporter who worked his way up the ranks from metro reporter to foreign correspondent, Evan Osnos is hardly an underdog in the arena of literary awards; and yet, like Klay, Osnos tells a story many among us (myself included) are unwilling or unable to hear — the story of pain in a time of gain, of loss in a time of plenty, of opportunity in the midst of ever-present authoritarian oppression.

His prose is practically poetry, the facts have been checked within an inch of their lives, and the participants have been thanked on stage for their bravery by a shocked Evan Osnos (who claims not to have been able to predict this win at all despite a predilection for predictions). Suffice it to say that if political economy and the price of freedom has any interest to you at all, this book belongs on your shelf.

A bit more on Osnos:

Louise Glück for Faithful and Virtuous Night (Poetry)

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Ever since Ginsburg, Burroughs, and Dylan brought free verse to the forefront of the American consciousness, it's been hard for the technical lyricist to score so much as a moment's notice in American Poetry. And yet, Louise Glück has been writing her technical, lyrical, sorrowful, effervescent poetry since the 1960s, and earning consistent acclaim for her efforts. Glück was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her collection Wild Iris, and named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 2003 after making her political name as Special Bicentennial Consultant in 2000.

With her National Book Award win for Faithful and Virtuous Night, Glück proves that she is still looking forward, pushing the boundaries of poetry, and asking each of us to reconsider our futures from the vantage point of our own particular present.

A child of a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, Glück grew up on Long Island before attending, and failing to graduate from, both Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University (so dropouts of the world take note, you've got Jobs and Glück now). More on Gluck:

Jacqueline Woodson for Brown Girl Dreaming (Young People's Literature)

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Despite the disturbing racism that marred the win of an entirely deserving author, Jacqueline Woodson's success cannot be overshadowed. Woodson is a force to be reckoned with. A writer of poise, depth, humor, and humility, Woodson offers her readers more than her own story told with power and grace — she offers up herself with a frankness that those of us who search the dregs of the Internet for the barest glimpse into the actual life of our authorial heroes can ever dare to dream of.

As a dedicated author of books for children and young adults, on her website, (that I cannot recommend highly enough), Woodson offers advice to readers and teachers, and answers questions from fans and young writers alike. Woodson also offers readers some fun facts, which makes her my favorite author among the NBA award winners for her humor and her candor. Some of my favorite Woodson tidbits include:

Ursula Le Guin for Everything She Has Ever Done (Distinguished Contribution to American Letters)

Oh, Ms. Le Guin — words cannot begin to describe how much I admire, appreciate, and adore you in this moment. I was reminded of your work not more than one week ago when I was researching a Margaret Atwood interview for this very publication and stumbled across a recommendation Atwood made to The Wall Street Journal calling you "at this moment the grande dame of female science fiction writers in the United States;" and yet, your work has largely been ignored by literary critics and scholars... until now.

Did you, Ms. Le Guin, in your fiery and fervent acceptance speech, acknowledge the blatant disregard for genre in the mainstream media? Of course. Did you defend the prowess of literary voices who speak outside the critical mainstream? Certainly. And yet, your speech to the National Book Awards Audience was so much more than a diatribe against those critics who have wronged you and your tribe — your speech, Ms. Le Guin, was nothing less than a creative call to arms, a resounding and redemptive call for art in the age of capitalism.

Lovers of art and literature everywhere, listen and be galvanized — you're going to love Le Guin's speech as much as you'll love the artist herself, who's first science fiction story was written at the age of nine and submitted to Amazing Science Fiction at age 11. Although her first story never made it to print, Le Guin kept at it, evolving into the authorial powerhouse and activist you can see (over and over and over...) on stage. Of course, if you need any other reasons to love Le Guin, we've got 7 of them right there.