Jesmyn Ward, Masha Gessen, Robin Benway, and Frank Bidart all won National Book Awards on Wednesday night, the New York Times reports. The writers were honored at a star-studded ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street hosted by actress Cynthia Nixon; presenters included Anne Hathaway and Bill Clinton.
Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for fiction for her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, a family saga set in rural Mississippi that wrangles with race, history, and the carceral state. Ward, who has written three novels and won the National Book Award twice—last in 2011, for Salvage the Bones—is having a very good year: A little more than a month ago, she won a MacArthur Genius Grant. Masha Gessen won the nonfiction award for The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, her look at the rise of Vladimir Putin. Robin Benway picked up the prize for young people’s literature for Far From the Tree, a young adult novel about family ties, while the award for poetry went to Frank Bidard for his anthology Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016.
In addition to the prizes given for work published this year (or, technically, between Dec. 1, 2016 and Nov. 30, 2017), the National Book Foundation gave two lifetime achievement awards. Its Literarian Award for Outstanding Service went to Scholastic CEO Richard Robinson for his work with literacy rates and school book clubs. Meanwhile, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters went to novelist Annie Proulx, who delivered a blistering speech about the miserable era we’re living through.
The National Book Awards, in their current incarnation, have been given under one name or another since 1950, but the specific awards have varied wildly over the years. In 1980, the ceremony ballooned to an extremely comprehensive 28 categories, including “Science (Hardcover),” “Science (Paperback),” “Science Fiction (Hardcover),” and “Science Fiction (Paperback)”; by 1986, it had been cut back to just two awards, for fiction and nonfiction. Since 1989, the awards have been administered by the nonprofit National Book Foundation.