What did you think of the National Book Critics Circle Awards announced late last week? They seemed to me representative of the rather self-conscious choices the NBCC board makes nearly every year. As a former member of that august body, and probably its least member, I recall that deliberations tended to be focused on what titles weren’t getting awards anywhere else and whose favorites had been ignored. The higher up you were on the literary ladder of prominence, the more your choices counted (and conversely how little they mattered when the lowest rung on the ladder spoke up, which was more often than some preferred). However, that begins to sound rather whiny on my part, and I don’t intend that at all. Whatever might be said about their final decisions, the board members, I can attest, took the deliberations with the utmost seriousness and occasionally with considerable tension in the discussion. I respect them all.
This year’s winners were “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain (fiction), “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” by Andrew Solomon (nonfiction), “The Passage of Power” by Robert A. Caro (biography), “Swimming Studies” by Leanne Shapton (autobiography), “Useless Landscape, Or a Guide for Boys” by D.A. Powell (poetry), and “Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights” by Marina Warner (criticism). Interesting choices which for the most part eschew bestellerdom, as might be expected from the NBCC. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that few of you have read more than one of those titles if any. For the record, I have read only one, Caro’s fourth volume of his biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
And on the subject of literary things you might have missed recently, a poll of some noted writers reported in the British newspaper The Manchester Guardian found that more 77% thought the greatest living American writer is Philip Roth. And the largest number of writers polled — 24% — thought “Sabbath’s Theater” is Roth’s best book. runner-up was Don DeLillo with 7% of the votes.
Cormac McCarthy? Out of the running. Salman Rushdie? He was one of the voters. Nicholas Sparks? Just wanted to se if you were paying attention.
Feel free to add your own choice to the short list.