Lemony Snicket, the bestselling children’s author whose real name is Daniel Handler, was forced to apologize Thursday for a series of apparently racist remarks he made from the podium as he hosted the prestigious National Book Awards ceremony in New York City Wednesday night.
The Lemony Snicket book series, titled A Series Of Unfortunate Events, has sold more than 60 million copies and been translated into 41 languages, making Handler one of the most successful writers on the planet. He was hosting the National Book Awards on Wednesday, when he attempted what he later called — in an apology of sorts — “my own ill-conceived attempts at humor.”
That “humor” came at the expense of author Jacqueline Woodson, who won an award for young people’s fiction. Woodson, age 51, is African-American.
“I told Jackie she was going to win and I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer,” Handler said once Woodson had stepped down from the podium after collecting her award. “Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.”
Despite groans from the audience, Handler added a follow-up remark, claiming that Woodson had encouraged him to use her supposed watermelon allergy as a trait for a character in a Lemony Snicket book.
“I’m only writing a book about a black girl who’s 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 even the first apparently racist remark from the Lemony Snicket author that evening. Earlier, Handler — who is white — made a tongue-in-cheek complaint, asking why he has not yet received a Coretta Scott King Award.
That award is designated for black authors who write young adult fiction.
But it was the “watermelon” remarks by the writer known as Lemony Snicket that drew the most astonished response.
Mat Johnson, critically acclaimed author of the novel Pym and graphic novel Incognegro also expressed his exasperation on his Twitter feed.
Ah, the publishing industry, where a black person can win its highest awards, then in the next breath be subjected to a watermelon joke. — Mat Johnson (@mat_johnson) November 20, 2014
Los Angeles author Laila Lalami also summed up much of the response to Handler’s “joke.”
A black writer at the pinnacle of her career makes an inspiring speech, and a white guy thinks this is the perfect time for a racial joke. — Laila Lalami (@LailaLalami) November 20, 2014
Handler himself later took to Twitter to issue an apology. Notably, he did not apologize for the content of his remarks, but merely for taking the spotlight away from the award winning writers at the ceremony.
…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
After the Lemony Snicket author received a less-than warm reception in the audience to the seemingly racist remarks, he simply said, “All right, we’ll talk about it later.”