On a frigid night in early March, a well-dressed crowd of around five hundred people piled into the New School’s Tishman Auditorium to witness the announcement of the winners of the National Book Critics Circle Awards. The membership organization of seven hundred critics and reviewers, founded in 1974, bestows awards annually for poetry, fiction, biography, general nonfiction, and criticism. This year, for the first time, autobiography (or memoir), was added as a separate category—an interesting distinction at a time when the controversy over the genre has dominated literary news.
True to form, autobiography provided the most excitement of the night, a result of the unique format of the award announcements. For each category, an NBCC member lists the five finalists and immediately turns to describing the winning book. When naming the winner for autobiography, however, New York Daily News critic Celia McGee’s introduction led many to believe that Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf) had won, when in fact it went to Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them: A Memoir of Parents (Penguin Press). The announcement of du Plessix Gray’s name brought a few gasps and giggles as audience members realized their mistake. The other finalists were Judith Moore for Fat Girl: A True Story (Penguin), Orhan Pamuk for Istanbul: Memories and the City (Knopf), and Vikram Seth for Two Lives (HarperColllins).
In a surprising win, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Keith Gessen), released by the independent publisher Dalkey Archive Press, took the general nonfiction award away from a group of larger publishers, including Henry Holt, Knopf, and Pantheon.
Another “small-fish-in-a-big-pond” winner was Pushcart Press publisher Bill Henderson, who received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Henderson’s jokes about the Bush administration and his jabs at corporate publishing rankled some (including representatives of Random House, the publishing conglomerate that accounted for nearly forty percent of the finalists) in the nearly-filled room. Given the people in the audience—more than half of whom were professionals heavily invested in the event’s outcome—some tense moments were to be expected, as groups of colleagues from publishing houses strung heavy jackets and overcoats over long trails of reserved seats, sighing and cooing and celebrating with a symphony of hushed “yes’s” when their authors won.
The poetry award went to Jack Gilbert for Refusing Heaven (Knopf). Gilbert, the recipient of the Lannan Literary Award, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize, was not able to attend the ceremony, but his editor, Deb Garrison, accepted it for him. The other finalists were Simon Armitage for The Shout (Harcourt), Blas Manuel de Luna for Bent to Earth (Carnegie Mellon University Press), Richard Siken for Crush (Yale University Press), and Ron Slate for The Incentive of the Maggot (Houghton Mifflin).
Two other awards also provided laughs. Harper’s critic Wyatt Mason, the recipient of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, highlighted the importance of journalistic clarity with a story about his efforts to obtain milk for his tea in a Hungarian café using the international mooing sound for dairy. And William Logan, the oft-maligned poetry critic and winner in criticism for The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press), played to his fierce reputation. “I was always critical, I’m told,” he said. “My mother said I refused the breast.” Still, Kai Bird, the winner in biography (along with coauthor Martin Sherwin) for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, pointed out that authors crave the critics’ attention. “We love your reviews, good, bad, or rotten,” he said, “as long as there’s a review.”
But it was the fiction winner—E.L. Doctorow for his novel The March (Random House), a National Book Awards finalist and also winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award—who reminded the crowd of the importance of the writer’s role. “The book is written in silence and read in silence, and goes from heart to heart and soul to soul like nothing else can.” The other finalists for fiction were Mary Gaitskill for Veronica (Pantheon), Kazuo Ishiguro for Never Let Me Go (Knopf), Andrea Levy for Small Island (Picador), and William T. Vollmann for Europe Central (Viking).