The Ace Hotel’s Liberty Hall was filled to capacity last night for the National Book Foundation’s eleventh annual 5 Under 35 ceremony. The closing of powerHouse Arena over the summer prompted the event’s move to Midtown Manhattan. Though the space was smaller than last year’s, the crowd was no less lively. The cocktail hour preceding the official ceremony was well lubricated, thanks to the able bar staff, and attendees mingled with plates of hummus and charcuterie until the very seconds before the event officially began.
After affectionately instructing the audience to settle down, executive director Lisa Lucas shared a few thoughts about community. “In this time we’re living through, it’s nice to see the tribe,” she said, which prompted a round of applause. She added that, post-election, it had been tempting to wonder if books and literature were important, but she’d come to a simple conclusion: “hell yes.” Books, and all of their attendant values – particularly those of listening well, thinking deeply, and speaking with purpose – are “worth our time, worth our spirit, and worth our care,” she said.
Before the reading got underway, program director Benjamin Samuel expressed gratitude for the space the gathering represented. “It’s wonderful to be together in a room where we can feel safe,” he said simply. He then introduced the evening’s host, BJ Novak. Novak, best known for his work as a stand-up comedian; as a producer, writer, and actor on The Office; and as the author of multiple books, including One More Thing and The Book With No Pictures, expressed delight about being among bookish people. “I can tell jokes that wouldn’t work with other audiences,” he said, before launching into a detailed description of the way global politics shape and constrain creative work that ended with a classic stinger: what’s up with that? The audience cheered.
Before concluding his brief, heartfelt remarks, Novak also discussed the strangeness of writing in an uncertain time. After the last week, he said that he felt “like I was suddenly living in an era that whatever I did creatively had to be in conversation with.” And then it was time to bring up the writers who interact with our era.
The event followed a simple format: each selector was introduced by emcee Ben Greenman, and then in turn introduced their chosen honoree, who read a page from their winning book. Several of the selectors used their moment at the podium to acknowledge possible futures for literature. Jacqueline Woodson charged all attendees to “finish [their] book!” and added, “Writers have always written toward a revolution…[they focus] not on what’s going to sell but what’s going to change the world.” Chris Jackson, subbing in for Ta-Nehisi Coates, reminded the crowd of the stakes of the art. “Black people pay a price for their imaginations,” he said. And Karen Bender, too, found a lesson in the book she had chosen for celebration: as she said, “Literature of immigration is especially important now.”
There was room for levity, too. Amity Gaige, herself a 5 Under 35 honoree in 2006, quoted her professor George Saunders as saying that “humor is intelligence manifesting itself” before describing the joy Hall of Small Mammals had brought her. And Meg Wolitzer, speaking on behalf of Lauren Groff, drew laughter with an aside about youth in the industry. “You think you’re young but you’re not,” she said, gesturing at the five honorees. “Tomorrow I’m actually officiating at 35 Under 5. Watch your backs.”
This year’s winners were:
- Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers (Riverhead / Penguin Random House), selected by Jacqueline Woodson
- Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing (Knopf / Penguin Random House), selected by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Greg Jackson, author of Prodigals (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / Macmillan), selected by Lauren Groff
- S. Li, author of Transoceanic Lights (Harvard Square Editions), selected by Karen Bender
- Thomas Pierce, author of Hall of Small Mammals (Riverhead / Penguin Random House), selected by Amity Gaige
After all five authors had read, Greenman sat down with them for a lightning round of questions. These ranged the gamut from the straightforward (“where were you born?”) to the challenging (“if you had to summarize your book in five words or less, could you? Don’t do it – just tell us if you could”). Only Brit Bennett felt that she could, and Yaa Gyasi gave it a maybe; the others, especially the short story authors Greg Jackson and Thomas Pierce, were unequivocal. “Absolutely not,” said S. Li.
Asked what form of art they felt an affinity for besides writing, though, the response was universal: music. Bennett also chose dance, Jackson specified genre (rap or K-Pop), and Li clarified that he felt an affinity for John Coltrane in particular, but the five honorees each expressed admiration for that other orally communicative form.
With one last question (could the authors name the last word of their books? all but Pierce could), Greenman reopened the floor for writers and book-lovers to socialize again. Between the flashes of light from the photo booth and the clumps of admirers holding books to be signed, the whole scene was one of joy. The evening ended exactly as Lucas had noted: with the tribe, together.