National Book Awards Winner Introductions

Antonya Nelson, 2003 Fiction Panel Chair

Antonya Nelson
Photo Credit: Melanie Winzig
Walter Mosley (Master of Ceremonies):

The 2003 National Book Award Fiction finalists are: T.C. Boyle, Drop City, Viking/Penguin Group USA; Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire, Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Edward P. Jones, The Known World, Amistad/HarperCollins; Scott Spencer, A Ship Made of Paper, Ecco/HarperCollins; finally, Marianne Wiggins, Evidence of Things Unseen, Simon & Schuster.

Please stand and applaud them, give them all your love. These writers are working for you, you know.
The Chairman of the fiction jury is Antonya Nelson. She is the author of seven works of fiction, most recently Female Trouble, a collection of short stories. She recently received the prestigious Rea Award for the Short Story. She lives in Houston, Texas and Telluride, Colorado. I wish I did. Antonya, please.

Antonya Nelson:

Reading great fiction is like falling in love. Both thrill through the magic alchemy of intellectual and imaginary apprehension that results in physical bloom, the flushed cheek, the beating heart, the joy of having on earth your own ability to respond to another.

I feel honored to represent the fiction jury tonight and to tell you how we spent our collective summer vacation. Peter Cameron, Alice Elliott Dark, Jay Parini, Jean Thompson and I read roughly 380 books of fiction. We dedicated shelves in our homes and hours of our days. We aggravated our postmasters on the Atlantic coast, in the Midwest, in the Rocky Mountains with the impossibly high and relentless volume of arriving packages. On more than one occasion during a conference call in which we were discussing our recent favorite selections, Jean's dogs could be heard yelping as yet more books thumped down on her doorstep.

But like everyone in this room, we love books. The satisfying heft and the sexy slick covers and the way the spine cracks when you first open a hardback and the gossipy acknowledgments page, the dour or demonic or airbrushed author photo. The tangible product, however, is when the true judging begins and this process, although the five of us had each other to call upon, is an utterly private act. It cannot be reproduced in visual illustration, not in cinema, nor even the best of critical reviews.

Nothing will ever replace the experience of reading great literature. There is no analogous or substitute activity for it. The intimacy of reading the work of a master story teller is closest, I think, to the intimacy two people share as they lie together in the dark talking. Even that activity, as Philip Larkin has noted, often times cannot satisfy the urge and urgency of feeling connected easily yet profoundly with another. We seek it out, the paradox of simple sympathy.

Reading great fiction is like falling in love. Both thrill through the magic alchemy of intellectual and imaginary apprehension that results in physical bloom, the flushed cheek, the beating heart, the joy of having on earth your own ability to respond to another.

Our five fiction finalists have in common large ambition. Each dramatizes a particular time and place, attendant to individuals at the mercy of setting and society and self. History is about winners, my friend, Kit, once said, but literature is about losers. Novels and stories are about the lost, the left behind, the solitary fictional stand-in whom history could never name heroic but whom literature can label hero.

Our hope is that many others will now also fall in love with this year's National Book Award winner in fiction, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard.