James McBride, Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction for his Civil War-era novel, The Good Lord Bird.
McBride, who has been part of the Carter Journalism Institute faculty since 2005, was surprised at his selection—he did not prepare a speech in advance of the announcement at the National Book Awards ceremony, held Wednesday evening at Cipriani Wall Street.
The other finalists in the fiction category were: Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers; Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland; Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge; and George Saunders, Tenth of December.
McBride’s previous works include: The Color of Water and Miracle at St. Anna, which Spike Lee turned into a film of the same title, as well as Song Yet Sung, also set in the Civil War era.
In a cover page review of The Good Lord Bird for the New York Times Book Review, Baz Dreisinger wrote that aspects of the book “signaled a new way of talking – indeed joking -- about race in America today.”
“It is officially O.K. to be boldly irreverent about not just the sacrosanct but also the catastrophic. Does this mark the triumph of irony, to the point where it has dulled our emotional response to history? Or does it denote progress: we’ve come so far from historical horrors that we freely jest about them? Either way, it’s a risky endeavor; maladroit jokes about slavery aren’t just bad, they’re hazardous. It’s a great relief, then, that McBride – with the same flair for historical mining, musicality of voice and outsize characterization that made his memoir The Color of Water an instant classic – pulls off this portrait masterfully, like a modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page.”
At the Carter Journalism Institute, McBride teaches a writing course called “Point of View.”