Author Ben Fountain Admits He's a Loser
No, he didn’t win a National Book Award. But he did get to watch Stephen King eat roast beef.
Ben Fountain didn't want a National Book Award. Until he did.photography by
“Prizes are stooopid, unless you win,” a writer friend recently emailed me, and with that in mind I flew off to New York in November for the National Book Awards. My first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was one of the finalists in the fiction category for this coveted and potentially quite stupid award. Out of all the millions—okay, hundreds—of novels published in 2012, the judges in their wisdom had narrowed this motley field down to a streamlined five.
If there’s a big time in the book world, the National Book Awards would be it, and the organizers pulled out all the stops to upscale what had lately been regarded as a frumpy event. The awards ceremony would be a black-tie affair at the ornate Cipriani on Wall Street. Think of the Sistine Chapel as a banquet hall with seating for 700, and you get the picture. There would be a “press area,” a swatch of red carpet for photo ops, a celebrity emcee whom I’d never heard of, and live television coverage on C-SPAN!
But first, the medal ceremony, held the night before at the New School, where the five finalists in each of the four categories—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and Young People’s Literature—received their finalist medals in a ceremony modeled after the Nobel Prize. “When your name is called,” said the director, Harold Augenbraum, a courtly gentleman-scholar of impeccable dress, “come forward, pretend I am the king of Sweden, and bow your head so I can place the medal around your neck.”
Thus equipped with our writer bling, we all convened the following night at Cipriani, everyone arriving late with stories of mazing our way through all the flood remediation clogging downtown Manhattan.
A roving reporter from NPR (where was Entertainment Tonight?) asked me how I felt. “Like I need a drink,” I replied, which is what I figured any self-respecting writer would say. Plus I really needed a drink. I was jazzed. No, I was sort of a nervous wreck, a condition worsened by the fact that I hadn’t expected to be. As everyone says, when you’re a finalist, you’ve already won. Such an honor etc., etc. All true, except, now that I was here, I wanted to nail the whole damn thing, the assumption being I would never get this close again.
Desire, as the Buddha says, is the source of all unhappiness, an observation that I fervently believe and have as yet utterly failed to put into practice. It was some comfort that the other finalists looked to be in similarly miserable states of unseemly desire, even the veterans who’d done this many times. As the evening lurched toward the awards announcements, complexions paled, jugulars bulged, and the laughs came harder. The emcee’s banter didn’t help, nor the interminable break for dinner, though I did have moments of relief, such as watching Stephen King eat his roast beef at the next table over, and hearing the lovely, nonpompous speech that Elmore Leonard gave on receiving the lifetime achievement award. Leonard, who at 87 bears a remarkable resemblance to Ho Chi Minh, gave a breezy synopsis of his workmanlike career and finished by saying that all he ever really wanted to do was have fun writing stories. Point taken, El.
Meanwhile the rest of us strivers suffered. At my own table, Patricia McCormick, a two-time finalist for Young People’s, was grinding her teeth down to the gum. At the next table over, the beautiful, brilliant Louise Erdrich—a fiction finalist for the third time, along with two previous nominations for Young People’s—looked like a woman on the verge of an emergency appendectomy. Sitting there, eating my poached-pear dessert, I realized that the main source of dread was my own emotions: the blast of angst that would come of not winning, plus self-loathing at having been so stupid—there’s that word again—to allow fantasies of winning to dance through my thick head.
Young People’s went to a fellow from Minneapolis; McCormick smiled bravely. Poetry was announced, then nonfiction. As the chair of the fiction judges’ panel gave her speech, I had one of those car-wreck-in-progress-out-of-body moments. Oh, self; oh, desire. And I thought I’d be cooler about all this. When a very deserving Louise Erdrich was announced as the winner, disappointment literally whacked me—ooph—and then I was, weirdly, okay. A bit deflated, but okay. I could stop thinking about it now. I could move on. Tomorrow I’d go home to Dallas, and would, in the wise words of Uncle Elmore, get back to work having fun writing stories.