Phil Klay Wins, Daniel Handler Horrifies at National Book Awards

Posted on November 20, 2014

Phil Klay won the National Book Award for fiction last night. The former Marine wrote a moving book of short stories based on his experiences in Iraq and integrating back into civilian life. But Klay's win was overshadowed by host Daniel Handler's unfortunate event.

Handler, who writes as the phenomenally popular children's author Lemony Snicket when he isn't writing adult novels, hosted the evening with his usual wit and verve. But he really blew it when he presented the award for young people's literature to black author Jacqueline Woodson, who wrote Brown Girl Dreaming. It was the first award of the night and everyone was sober and paying attention. Then things got really uncomfortable.

After the win and an inspiration speech by Ms. Woodson, Handler said, "I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind." He really should have stopped there, which would have been bad enough. But it got worse. He continued to relay a conversation he had with Ms. Woodson, saying "And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book. And I said I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying, 'This guy’s okay. This guy’s fine.'"

Things hit the fan after that, with a number of commentators noting the sad fact that as a black woman accepts an extremely prestigious award, she's met with a watermelon joke from a white male friend. Author Roxanne Gay tweeted that "Handler's racist 'humor' at the NBAs last night is not okay and I am shocked that so few people are talking about it....And you know, I'm sure he's a good guy. But we can still say, 'This was a mistake, try and be better.'"

Young adult author Kwame Alexander tweeted, "It's not that Daniel Handler made a bad joke that is problematic. It's that he thinks it was only a bad joke when in fact it was, uh, racism." Chicago's Mikki Kendall, who writes Hood Feminism, saw another problem with the joke. She wanted to know what in the world made Handler think that joke would work in that crowd of people, tweeting, "At some point we're going to talk about why Daniel Handler thought his comments would be received well in that room. But not today."

Author Laila Lalami was also concerned with the reaction in the room. She tweeted, I can't decide what's more disturbing: the joke or the titters from the (largely liberal) audience. Oh, publishing."

Handler tweeted an apology saying, "My job at last night's National Book Awards #NBAwards was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry. -DH"

What in the world was Daniel Handler thinking? He's brilliant, funny and kind. But he still didn't get that making a joke like that really was incredibly offensive and disrespectful to an author he clearly likes and admires. And that's the problem: he didn't mean to offend, yet that's what he thought was an appropriate joke.

Ms. Woodson has yet to comment.

You can see the entire ceremony here.

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