Daniel Handler, an author best known for work published under the pen name Lemony Snicket, hosted the National Book Awards last night. According to the New York Times, he proved an “edgy and entertaining master of ceremonies,” at the black-tie industry dinner, taking “repeated shots at Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos.”
But it’s not the Bezos-bashing that the literary world has seized upon. Writers and readers across the Web were instead mulling Handler’s decision to fish for laughs with troubling riffs on race. After perennial nominee Jacqueline Woodson accepted an award for Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir in verse of her childhood at the tail end of the Jim Crow era, a giggling Handler took the center-stage podium and said this:
I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something that I learned about her 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 it in a book. And I said, I’m only writing a book about a black girl who’s allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornel West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama, saying, ‘This guy’s OK, this guy’s fine.’
In addition to that awkward interlude (which occurs around the 16:45 mark in this C-SPAN stream), Handler expressed his wish to receive an Coretta Scott King Award, for which only “African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” are eligible (8:20 mark). At another point, some viewers said, he referred to two black nominees in poetry as “probable cause.” By contrast, after Louise Glück won top poetry honors for Faithful and Virtuous Night, he quoted a passage from one of her poems with visible emotion.
Handler’s Twitter apology this morning was a fait accompli.
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
And with that, everyone in publishing can go back to pretending they’re enlightened, post-racial, able to joke about anything, and supremely well-intentioned. Right?
Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events book franchise is set to become a Netflix show, the author confirmed earlier this month, but if he wants a staff writing job on Orange Is the New Black, he’s probably out of luck.