The National Book Awards’ change of venue last night — and the arrangement of the awards’ first official after-party in years, at the decidedly unbookish Socialista — resulted from a happy little coup on the board of the foundation. Old-time agent Lynn Nesbitt agreed to join the National Book Foundation’s board on only one condition: They leave the awful Marriott behind. Her colleague Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove Atlantic and veteran of the Odeon-McInerney era, was responsible for the after-party. He had deputized younger, slightly less bookish folks (Sloane Crosley, Jessica Joffe) to invite friends and friends of friends. As of 7 p.m., 450 people had RSVP’d yes to the party, which was meant to accommodate 300. Everyone at the ceremony was also invited. It was shaping up to be a potentially firefighter-mediated event to remember.
On the way north to Socialista, a two-tiered amalgam of a Tennessee Williams stage set and a very comfortable dungeon, our friend (the same editor who palpated Christopher Hitchens last year) railed against the Matthiessen pick. “That’s not how you get people to read, it sends exactly the wrong message,” and so on. Not everyone agreed — Matthiessen, after all, was the nature-loving, spiritually evolved co-founder of the Paris Review: an octogenarian, but hardly a reactionary, and a wonderful writer, too. But we quickly realized most of the people at Socialista had not only missed the awards, they weren’t even sure what they were. (There were books on tables, but only ones published by the co-sponsors, Grove Atlantic and Weinstein Books.)
Blank stares greeted our queries. We finally got up the nerve to talk to a mysterious stranger in black, a dapper, laconic man others agreed must be a vampire. He was in PR, it turns out, “changing the world through socially conscious investments.” He invited us to be his guests at a vegan restaurant on Wall Street. Men who could double as Chace Crawford or Josh Hartnett roamed the space. What, exactly, was Hudson Morgan doing here? Well, at least Nathan Englander showed up. “Problems of the world aside, it’s nice to have a party. It’s like my bar mitzvah,” he said. Really? “Except I’m not broken out and I actually like my friends,” he added.
“I heard that in the sixties the NBAs were very glamorous,” Entrekin was telling us closer to midnight — his white, tidy mane of hair flowing, his stance a bit wobbly, his young wife at his side. He said the place was indeed overfilled — he’d counted on a 50 percent RSVP rate and got closer to 100 percent — but not dangerously so. The important thing was to bring in people from other fields, to get the conversation (or at least the liquor) flowing between the book world and other culture industries.
Well, there weren’t too many highbrow exchanges, just a good deal of drinking, shouting, and dancing. It wasn’t even all that hot or crowded. Yes, people were dancing on tables to M.I.A., people who read books. But — not to brag — we’d seen people dancing on tables, people who read books, just the night before at Botanica after the Housing Works benefit. There was, here as well as there, a feeling of cathartic release among the young and semi-young in media and publishing during a week of intense layoff anxiety. It’s hard to be snarky about it. The National Book Awards after-party was fun (not the ceremony, but baby steps). Which in itself is unusual. When you’ve had George W. Bush for eight years, the idea of a competent intellectual in the White House starts to seem a distant, impossible dream, something we don’t even deserve. The same goes for a decent party on the night of the Oscars of publishing. This was the year we got both. Yes we did.