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Sontag's 'America' Wins National Book Award

When her novel came out, reactions were strong--and mixed. 'I didn't dare hope to win,' she says.

November 17, 2000|From Times and wire reports

NEW YORK — With Steve Martin serving as master of ceremonies, the National Book Awards on Wednesday night felt just a little bit like the Academy Awards. They felt even more so when Susan Sontag, the very image of the serious-minded author, won the prize for fiction for "In America."

"To say I'm astonished is an understatement," said the 67-year-old Sontag, who didn't pretend not to enjoy the award, or to say she expected it. "I'm really more moved than I could say."

"I didn't dare hope to win and am extremely pleased for the novel," she said later in an interview. "My book is about self-transformation, a certain kind of heroism for the will. And it is a California novel. For California--and especially Southern California--is America's America, where people have come to remake themselves since the 1970s."

Based on the life of the 19th century stage performer Helena Modjeska, "In America" was Sontag's first novel since the acclaimed 1992 bestseller "The Volcano Lover."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 20, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Author's quote--In an article Friday on the National Book Awards, a typographical error occurred in a quote from fiction award winner Susan Sontag. The correct quote is: "I didn't dare hope to win, and am extremely pleased for the novel. My book is about self-transformation, a certain kind of heroism of the will. And it is a California novel. For California--and especially Southern California--is America's America, where people have come to remake themselves since the 1870s."

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When it appeared, the book received strong reviews--both positive and negative. "Susan Sontag's new novel is a brilliant and profound investigation into the fate of thought and culture in America," Michael Silverblatt wrote in The Times. "Like her last novel, 'The Volcano Lover,' 'In America' masquerades as historical fiction, flaunting the stuff of drama and romance. It is something restless, hybrid, disturbing, original. 'In America' is a picaresque fable, a historical tragicomedy."

New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani labeled it "a banal, flat-footed narrative." Although highly anticipated, the book also spent little time on bestseller lists.

The author of such influential nonfiction works as "Against Interpretation" and "Illness as Metaphor," Sontag also was criticized for borrowing passages from other sources.

But novelist Ron Hansen, chair of the NBA fiction committee, praised "In America" as the "heart and majesty" of American writing in 2000. In a post-ceremony news conference, Sontag said she was too "squeamish" to read reviews and questioned their value.

"I often feel that I really know better what's wrong than any reviewer does," she said.

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Other fiction finalists included Joyce Carol Oates' "Blonde," based on the life of Marilyn Monroe; Francine Prose's "Blue Angel" and Charles Baxter's "The Feast of Love." Alan Lightman was nominated for "The Diagnosis."

Also Wednesday, the nonfiction award went to Nathaniel Philbrick for "In the Heart of the Sea," the story of the whaling ship tragedy that inspired Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." Runners-up included 92-year-old Jacques Barzun, author of the 800-page bestseller "From Dawn to Decadence," and Patrick Tierney, author of the much-debated anthropological investigation "Darkness in El Dorado."

The poetry prize went to Lucille Clifton for the compilation "Blessing the Boats," and the young people's literature award went to Gloria Whelan for "Homeless Bird," the story of a girl in India married and widowed at age 13.

Ray Bradbury, best known for the futuristic novel "Fahrenheit 451" and the science-fiction classic "The Martian Chronicles," received an honorary medal.

The awards are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization. Winners receive $10,000; other finalists get $1,000.

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Times Book Editor Steve Wasserman contributed to this report.

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