On January 21, The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) named its finalists for the publishing year 2014 in the categories of poetry, criticism, biography, autobiography, nonfiction and fiction. On the evening of March 11, those finalists read their work to a packed New School auditorium, and on the evening of March 12, one finalist from each category received an NBCC award.
Toni Morrison, recipient of the NBCC’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, spoke at length about the NBCC during her acceptance speech. She specifically discussed the critic John Leonard, the namesake of an NBCC prize and one of the only critics to draw attention to Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye. Morrison thanked Leonard for giving The Bluest Eye “his best judgment,” and went on to describe a time when poetry and essays and novels by black writers were written up in a single review: James Baldwin reviewed against August Wilson reviewed against Eldridge Cleaver.
How far we’ve come. And much of our progress, as Morrison said, is rightfully attributed to organizations like the NBCC, and those progressive, passionate individuals who comprise them.
Here’s a summary of the finalists’ reading on the evening of March 11 and the awards ceremony on the evening of March 12, separated by category.
Saeed Jones delivered selections from his debut collection Prelude to Bruise with vigor, pelting the audience with a flurry of gnarled, gorgeous verse. Jones’s collection grapples with the racial history of the United States; Prelude to Bruise was listed on NPR’s and Time Out New York’s Best Book of 2014 lists.
Puerto Rican poet and children’s book author Willie Perdomo followed Jones, reading from his poetry collection The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon-Bon. Perdomo delivered a sing-song bilingual drumline of poetry that dazzled and drew laughs.
The audience expected quite a lot from Claudia Rankine, given that she was the first writer in the history of the NBCC to be named a finalist in two categories (poetry, criticism) for a single work. Hers were shard of sociopolitical prose poetry that still haunt me.
Christian Wiman came next, reading from his collection Once in the West. Wiman read a poem he admitted had once been a prayer, laced with vibrant detail.
Wrapping up the poetry section of the evening was the widow of the late poet Jake Adam York, Sarah Skeen, who did her late husband’s work a delicate justice. York’s poems rendered small descriptions as brilliant gems of memory. York tragically died of a stroke in 2012. He was 40.
Claudia Rankine took away the prize for poetry the following evening. NBCC poetry chair Rigoberto Gonzalez praised Rankine’s work as having “unbelievable frankness and fire,” and claimed that it forced an uncomfortable but necessary dialogue. In her acceptance speech, Rankine revealed that she took Citizen: An American Lyric through a battle with cancer, and was grateful to her publisher Graywolf Press for supporting her throughout the process.
An unnaturally gifted writer and a wonderful essayist, Eula Biss read an excerpt from her new essay collection On Immunity. Biss described her husband telling her son about neutrinos explaining,“we have sunshine in all of us.” Moments later, Biss ridiculed herself for worrying about all of the invisible things that could hurt her son when, miles away from their home in Chicago, other children were worried about getting gunned down in front of their houses. Needless to say, On Immunity packs quite the punch.
Novelist Vikram Chandra read a fun passage from Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty. He analogized his obsession with coding to a drug addition, professing his love for “rotating the contours of [coding] conundrums” in his mind.
Lynne Tillman read an excerpt from her collection of essays entitled What Would Lynne Tillman Do? Teaming with neat wit and thought-provoking commentary (“the unconscious is structured like a language”), Tillman offered introspective criticism of a convention taking place in New York that featured the likes of R.D. Liang, William Burroughs and John Cage.
Nona Willis Aronowitz, the daughter of the late educator and essayist Ellen Willis, came next, reading from The Essential Ellen Willis, an omnibus of her mother’s essays spanning over four decades. The following evening, Nona, who also edited the book, gave a lovely acceptance speech on behalf of her mother, who passed away in 2006.
The finalists in the category of biography included Ezra Greenspan, John Lahr, Ian MacNiven and Miriam Pawel.
Greenspan read an excerpt from his biography of William Wells Brown, an American slave who gained his freedom, which contained a fascinating exchange between Brown and his former master. Lahr’s description of Tennessee Williams’s ascent to the pinnacle of theatrical America contained a dark humor fitting of Williams himself. MacNiven’s reflection on New Directions publisher and poet James Laughlin conveyed an academic fascination with the man that made for a truly memorable and heartfelt reading. And Pawel did an excellent job of showing Caesar Chavez’s greatest strengths in a series of scenes depicting the activist’s struggle with chronic illness.
John Lahr came away with the award, and gave an touching speech, describing his twelve year voyage of writing his Tennessee Williams biography. He analogized writing a book at his age to being a batter in the bottom of the ninth, and expressed the need to make a connection, a feat he clearly accomplished.
Blake Bailey, who is most recognized as a biographer of John Cheever, delivered a darkly comedic depiction of his brother, a crippling alcoholic, which he concluded with a Cheever quote.
Lacy Johnson threw the room for a turn with a jarringly removed description of a rape, delving into the physical and mental trauma of the experience in a harrowing few minutes of exceptional prose.
Melanie Toumani, an Armenian-American writer, delivered a soulful reflection on her experience visiting Turkey for the first time, sifting through a barrage of emotions and reflections pitting Turkey’s natural beauty against its propagandist denial of the Armenian genocide.
Gary Shteyngart delivered an excerpt of his autobiography Little Failure, during which he took on an impeccable impression of himself as a young child and aspiring author, brandishing a ridiculous Russian accent and an oversized, innocent ego. Shteyngart was half-magician half-Woody Allen protagonist, giving more of a performance than a reading.
But it was Roz Chast who won the NBCC award for her critically acclaimed graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Chast’s speech was material right out of one of her comics: she said she had promised her agent that if she won she would kill both of her parrots, who were in the room during the conversation.
“I just hope they don’t speak English,” she quipped.
The accomplished finalists in the category of non-fiction published on subjects ranging from Boris Pasternak’s love affair with writing Doctor Zhivago to American slavery to Thomas Picketty’s Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.
The winner was David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, the third installment of a massive work on slavery and abolition 48 years in the making. The first installment of The Problem of Slavery trilogy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the second was the recipient of the National Book Award.
In a reading from his novel An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine painted a gorgeous portrait of true hatred — a wife’s hatred of her husband. Alameddine’s meticulous description of his protagonist scrubbing every corner of her house after the departure of her ex-husband (“the impotent insect”) reveled in hilarious darkness.
Jamaican writer Marlon James read a passage from his newest novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. James delivered a conversation between a white man ignorant of his colonial impulse and a Jamaican man underhandedly mocking his counterpart; James shifted accents and employed colloquialisms to perfection.
Lily King gave a reading from her novel Euphoria. Her description of the way a writer observes a scene was a clear highlight, putting words to the small details that spawn a chain reaction creating the first draft of a story.
But it was the esteemed Marilynne Robinson who won the NBCC fiction award for Lila, the final installment of her Gilead trilogy. Robinson is known for the timeless beautify of her prose, which Fiction Committee Chair Mark Athitakis described as “shot through with light and grace.”
NBCC President Laurie Muchnick described The National Book Critics Circle as an organization created to engender conversation and resist exclusivity, an assertion seconded by Toni Morrison during her acceptance speech.
Said Morrison: “The NBCC is more than unique. It is more than necessary. It is urgent.”