Book News: Daniel Handler Apologizes For Jokes At National Book Awards
The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.
If this year's National Book Awards saw a fiery speech from Ursula K. Le Guin, the evening also featured incendiary comments of quite another kind. Ceremony host Daniel Handler — whom most readers might know better by his pen name, Lemony Snicket — made several racially charged jokes that drew a strong reaction Thursday.
In the wake of Jacqueline Woodson's win for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, Handler brought up the topic of watermelon — which, to put it lightly, was a poor idea. His joke is reproduced here in full (and you can watch the video here):
"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.
"And I said, 'You have to put that in a book.' And she said, 'You put that in a book.' And I said that 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 OK. This guy's fine.' "
The joke wasn't his first of the night to bear racial overtones. He also quipped that two black nominees together in the poetry category may be considered "probable cause."
The reaction was swift. Writers such as Roxane Gay, Kwame Alexander and Laila Lalami (as well as plenty of publications) were quick to condemn the remarks on Thursday. For his part, Handler's apology came nearly as quickly, and it arrived via Twitter.
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My job at last night's National Book Awards #NBAwards was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson... -DH [1/2]— Daniel Handler (@DanielHandler) November 20, 2014
...and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry. -DH [2/2]— Daniel Handler (@DanielHandler) November 20, 2014