In addition to the prizes announced on Wednesday, the National Book Foundation awarded two lifetime achievement prizes. Rita Dove won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for her body of work, which includes 11 books of poetry. Dove was the first Black poet laureate of the United States in the 1990s. The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community was presented to Paul Yamazaki, the principal buyer at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco.
Occasionally, the subject of the war in Israel and Gaza was raised. The poet Heid E. Erdrich, who introduced the poetry winner, referenced how “human suffering in Gaza is at the forefront of our thoughts” and noted that “poetry is what we reach for in our grief.”
A few days before the ceremony, rumors spread that a group of finalists planned to make some sort of statement about the war in Gaza, but sponsors and organizers didn’t know what that might entail. Two sponsors, Zibby Media and Book of the Month, decided not to attend the ceremony and Zibby Media pulled its sponsorship altogether.
It’s not unusual for politics and global events to drive the conversation and speeches at the National Book Awards. In the past, winners have spoken out against racism in America, the lack of diversity in publishing and threats to free expression as book bans have risen around the country.
Since the attack on Israel by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza, literary and cultural institutions have been wrestling with how to respond to the conflict. Recently, several literary events have been disrupted or canceled. On Monday night, pro-Palestinian demonstrators interrupted a literary award ceremony in Canada, at one point taking the stage and holding up a sign that accused Scotiabank, which provides funding for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, of funding genocide. Some events featuring Palestinian artists and writers have been canceled or postponed, including at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The collective call for a cease-fire drew applause from some attendees at the National Book Awards, but the remarks did not seem to be as polarizing or disruptive as organizers had feared. On Tuesday, after reports that some sponsors planned to skip the ceremony, the National Book Foundation issued a statement to quell the brewing controversy, noting that political statements have been issued by winners in the past.