Susan Choi won the National Book Award for fiction on Wednesday night for “Trust Exercise,” a novel set in the 1980s at a competitive performing arts school, where two students fall in love. The judges praised the novel for blending “the intellectual rigor of post-modern technique with a story that is timely, mesmerizing, and in the end, unsettling.”
Choi, a Pulitzer finalist in 2004 for her novel, “American Woman,” said in an acceptance speech that she was still surprised and grateful to be able to write for a living.
“Given what we’re all facing today and what many people are facing in an even more intense sense, I find it an astonishing privilege that this is what I get to do for a living,” she said.
“Trust Exercise,” Choi’s fifth novel, was embraced by critics and tackles the issue of sexual consent. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner called it a “psychologically acute” book that “enlists your heart as well as your mind. Zing will go certain taut strings in your chest.”
The award for nonfiction went to Sarah Broom for “The Yellow House,” her memoir about her New Orleans home and how her family scattered after Hurricane Katrina. In an emotional acceptance speech, Broom credited her mother, who raised 12 children, for instilling in her a love of language. “She was always wolfing down words, insatiable,” she said of her mother. “Which is how I learned the way words were a kind of sustenance.”
The awards, now in their 70th year, were presented at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York, with more than 700 guests attending a ceremony hosted by the actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton. The mood was buoyant, reflecting a relatively optimistic moment in the publishing industry, and the event was relatively free of drama or controversy, in contrast with this year’s other notable literary awards.
The novelist, essayist and critic Edmund White received the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, an award that has in previous years gone to literary legends like Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. White, who is best known for his works “A Boy’s Own Story” and “The Beautiful Room Is Empty,” was an early pioneer of gay literature and helped to bring stories centered on same-sex couples into the mainstream.