The awards, now in their 71st year, were presented by Jason Reynolds, bestselling children’s book author and two-time National Book Award finalist.
The National Book Award, which dates back to 1950, is one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards and has been awarded to literary icons such as WH Auden, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
This year’s awards ceremony, which took place as the coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate across the world, provided more than a moment of levity for the literary world. For struggling authors and booksellers, who have seen their sales plummet this year, literary awards like the National Book Awards and Booker Prize can bring needed attention to titles that have been overlooked.
While branded authors and big publishers have had healthy sales this year – print sales are up 7% this year from 2019 – many small independent publishers and writers less well-known people have struggled, as universities and bookstores across the United States have closed, cutting off vital pathways to reach readers.
More than half of the finalists this year were published by independent publishers and university presses. Eight of the 25 finalists were debuts.
Some of the speakers alluded to the tense political climate that followed the election, the ongoing struggle for racial equality and the devastation of the pandemic. Writer Roxane Gay, who presented this year’s Fiction Award, spoke about the responsibility of fiction writers to face the difficult times we live in.