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Franzen takes top book award

(CNN) -- Author Jonathan Franzen, who stirred controversy when he spurned praise from Oprah Winfrey and her book club, won the National Book Award for fiction Wednesday night for his best-selling novel "The Corrections."

The 500-page novel chronicles the life of an unhappy Midwestern family in modern times. It received excellent reviews and -- with the Winfrey uproar -- became the year's most talked-about work of literary fiction.

When the book was picked for Winfrey's club -- a selection that traditionally guarantees best-selling status -- Franzen worried about his place in the "high-art literary tradition" and complained the Oprah logo on his book cover amounted to a "corporate" endorsement.

Franzen: The author of the moment 

In return, he was criticized by some for being elitist.

The prize was presented Wednesday night at a ceremony in Manhattan, but there was a time shortly after the World Trade Center attack when Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation, thought that it might not take place.

A board meeting was called and officials with the foundation, which has been handing out one of literature's top prizes for 52 years, finally decided the show must go on.

"The fact of the matter is this is the 52nd National Book Awards, and when something has been going on for half a century, you have to think about the fact that you're responsible for that and you just can't let it drop even though these are horrendous circumstances," said Baldwin.

The attacks, however, caused a drop in attendance at the $1,000-a-plate dinner and ceremony -- it's down by at least a fifth this year, and that could hurt the foundation's operating budget, Baldwin says.

"Our revenues are down about 20 percent from prior years," Baldwin said.

Honoring Miller

Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller was honored at Wednesday night's National Book Awards.  

Andrew Solomon won in nonfiction for "The Noonday Demon," Virginia Euwer Wolff received the young people's literature prize for the novel "True Believer" and Alan Dugan was the winner in the poetry category for "Poems Seven."

Arthur Miller, whose plays include "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible," received the foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

"His name has been on the list for a couple of years now," said Baldwin. "He's America's greatest living playwright and one of the playwrights of modern times."

Lost in the shuffle of the hectic weeks leading up to the event was the fact that the awards were held on the 150th anniversary of the publication date of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." Baldwin suggested some of the works honored Wednesday night might one day hold a similar place in literary history.

"When 'Moby Dick' was published, it sold about 300 copies," Baldwin said. "I mean, literary excellence doesn't always leap up in front of you. Sometimes time and history are necessary."


• Welcome to The National Book Foundation

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