The National Book Critics Circle Awards is a two-night event. The first night each of the finalists reads for three minutes. Some years it doesn’t work so well — someone decides to read for 20 minutes and everyone else gets grumpy — but this year was magic. Every reader was both wonderful and on time. I can’t remember when I’ve felt luckier to be anywhere. New York was freezing and snow banked, and some of the authors got snowed out, but many of the people who missed the first night made it to the awards ceremony the second night.
I left the event that first night with my heart bursting — there were so many great books I wanted to read! Afterwards, my friend Louise Erdrich and her beautiful daughter Persia and I went to dinner. I told them that, for the sake of this book report, I wanted us to pick a winner in each category based on nothing but the readings. How much had each author actually been able to convey about his or her book in three minutes? It was a little like speed dating, and much, much harder than we thought it would be. Here’s the list we pored over, along with our decisions. (I’m putting the actual winners below our picks, too.)
This was impossible. All the readers were so good and so incredibly different. I was reminded that I need to read more poetry.The three of us agreed they should all win, but ultimately Louise and Persia and I all picked Robert Pinskey. His poem felt both epic and timeless, and his style (he’s also a jazz musician) was pure poetry.
The winner was Ishion Hutchinson. He hadn’t been at the reading (snow), but he wore a tuxedo to the awards the second night and was so moved that he could scarcely speak. Later I went online and read a few of his poems. A very deserving winner indeed.
Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
Mark Greif, Against Everything: Essays
Alice Kaplan, Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic
Olivia Lang, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
Peter Orner, Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live
Louise and Persia and I agreed this was the category we were least qualified to judge, but since we were only judging on three minutes, we plowed ahead. Olivia Lang was snowed out. We were all torn between Carol Anderson, whose reading was passionate and soul stirring, and Alice Kaplan, whose reading was crisp and engaging. She made Camus sound like the most interesting man in the world. In the end, Louise voted for Carol Anderson, and Persia and I voted for Alice Kaplan, all of us agreeing that we would happily switch our votes to the other.
Carol Anderson won. She looked like she’d just won some really astonishing $50,000,000 lottery. We were flooded with joy for Carol Anderson.
Well, this one was easy, in a way: Marion Coutts, Hope Jahren, and Hisham Matar were all snowed out. Jenny Diski had died six weeks before her book was published; so her editor read for her. That left Kao Kalia Yang, who came on stage, asked how many people knew who the Hmong were (lots of hands went up and she nodded appreciatively), then proceeded to give such a stirring reading that many eyes were damp in under three minutes. This book moves to the top of my stack, plus Louise and Persia both knew her and said she was a wonderful person.
Hope Jahren won. Lab Girl was one of my favorite books last year, and Hope was someone I was looking forward to meeting, but she lives in Norway now and was snowed in. Being snowed in in Norway seems like an excellent reason to miss a literary event.
Nigel Cliff, Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story
Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
Joe Jackson, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary
Michael Tisserand, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Frances Wilson, Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey
Nigel Cliff’s reading was spectacular. He read a three minute section about Van Cliburn meeting Kruschev and it made us want to run to the book table out front and buy a copy immediately. I suspected Ruth Franklin might win, because I’ve heard so many great things about her Shirley Jackson biography, and Louise was rhapsodic about how wonderful Joe Jackson’s book on Black Elk is, but we were judging off the reading and so Nigel got all our votes.
Ruth Franklin won. She said she was so glad to bring people’s attention back to Shirley Jackson, to have them know she was more than just the author of “The Lottery.” That’s the great thing about a well written biography — the power of resurrection.
Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
John Edgar Wideman, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File
This one was very tough. Jane Mayer was on a deadline and couldn’t come. The other four readers were fantastic. I picked Matthew Desmond. He packed the heart of his book into three minutes, but I have been passionate about Evicted all year. Louise picked Ibram X. Kendi, who read like a house on fire (his book had already won the National Book Award in this category), and Persia picked Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was quiet and moving (his book The Sympathizer had won last year’s Pulitzer). Then the three of us talked about how much we loved John Edgar Wideman, and how incredible it was to see him in person, and how happy we would be if he won.
Matthew Desmond won. He gave a beautiful speech about poverty and how the problem of affordable housing could so easily be improved in this country. He called his wife Tessa “my favorite story” and the audience made an collective sound of loving appreciation. I can only hope his win will mean more people read this book.
All four of the other finalists are my friends, and together they wrote four of my favorite books published in 2016, (all Parnassus First Editions Club picks!) so there was no losing. Michael’s flight was cancelled because of the snow, and Zadie, who lives just a few blocks from where the event was held, was snowed in in Toronto where she had given a reading the night before. Adam, Louise and I were the only readers. I picked Louise. I had picked Louise from the day the list came out. Louise picked me. If Adam had been with us, we would have picked him because his reading brought down the house. We handed the list to Persia and she put her little x by my name, which just goes to show what a polite and thoughtful woman she is when clearly on any planet she was pulling for her mother to win.
Louise won. I was sitting behind her and next to Zadie, who had busted out of Toronto in time for the ceremony. We screamed with joy. Louise did not see it coming, and she went up on stage in a daze of disbelief and gave the most astonishing off-the-cuff speech about the power and importance of art, and how meaningful and inspiring it had been to be with her friends and peers. The audience would have stood as one to carry her into the street on our shoulders. She was that good.
I’ve lost plenty of awards in my life but I have to tell you, losing to a dear friend who wrote a brilliant novel feels exactly like winning.
There were three more prizes given out that night: The John Leonard Prize for a first book went to the radiant and wildly deserving Yaa Gyasi for her novel Homegoing. At the end of her speech she said, “Finally, I’d like to thank my family, especially my parents Kwaku and Sophia Gyasi who came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs and the children in their arms. In a time where it feels like every day immigrants and refugees are being met with new affronts to their humanity, I am even more grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made so that I could one day stand here before all of you and accept this award.”
Michelle Dean won the Nana Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and gave a smart and funny speech about how we all need to up our game and take on tougher subjects than ourselves. “Many writers now are more interested in exploring the self. Power might be present in their books but it’s usually not the abiding preoccupation. And look: to borrow a phrase from one of Sontag’s speeches, I would never ask a writer to be a jukebox. But there is a kind of looking away going on by a lot of writers who should know better, I’m saying. And I’m troubled by it.”
And the amazing Margaret Atwood won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, saying, “I will cherish this Lifetime Achievement award from you — though, like all sublunar blessings, it is a mixed one. Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did the lifetime go?”
(I would vote to give Margaret Atwood as many livetimes as she would like to have.)
This post is very long. If you’ve made it to the end, thank you. Now imagine what it’s like being one of the 24 members on the NBCC panel. Books are nominated by critics all over the country, and when the list is down to 30 finalists, all 24 panel members read all 30 of those books. On the afternoon before the awards, they meet for six hours to praise and argue their way through all the titles, coming up with the winners just before the ceremony. It’s an incredible feat, so much work in the name of literature. I urge you to take a chance on a couple of these titles — perhaps one from each category. There are so many books — beautiful, powerful and important books — that sail right by us. The advice of smart critics is a fine place from which to start expanding our worldview.
Read well, friends, and be sure to come by the store and let us know what you loved. – Ann
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(To read along with Ann and the National Book Critics Circle, simply click any of the titles in this post — or come visit!)