The Book Critics Circle Awardsby Allyson Polsky McCabe
March 10, 2011
The winners of the NBCC awards were announced last night at the New School to the anticipation, and sometimes surprise, of a standing room-only crowd. Several of the winners appeared to share in the audience’s uncensored response. Take Clare Cavanagh who won the Criticism prize for Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russian, Poland, and the West (Yale University Press). In her thank you to the board, Cavanagh exclaimed, “You’ve made a mistake and I’m so grateful!” Darin Strauss, who won in Autobiography for Half a Life (McSweeney’s), appeared similarly stunned. When he took the stage and said, “Holy Crap! I wasn’t expecting this!” the admission appeared to be more than mock self-deprecation. While all of this drama lent the ceremony an air of genuine vitality, the pre-award events were also lively affairs.
On March 8th, the NBCC hosted two pre-awards finalists’ “conversations” in Biography/Autobiography and Nonfiction/Criticism. The Biography/Autobiography event, which drew an audience of about sixty, was hosted by Brenda Wineapple and moderated by Biography chair Eric Banks and Autobiography co-chair Rigoberto Gonzales. Biography finalists in attendance included Sarah Bakewell (How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Twenty Press), Yunte Huang (Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, W.W. Norton), and Thomas Powers (The Killing of Crazy Horse, Knopf). Among the Autobiography finalists present were Kai Bird (Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956 – 1978, Scribner), Rahna Reiko Rizzuto (Hiroshima in the Morning, Feminist Press), Patti Smith (Just Kids, Ecco), and Strauss.
For an hour, Banks and Gonzales invited all of the panelists to respond to broad questions on process and methodology. A few minutes were reserved at the end for audience questions, and the event was capped with a book signing and reception. The event began with a question about the differences between biography and autobiography.
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto ventured that biography is more concerned with what happened, whereas memoir is more about why it happened and what it means to the author. But she quickly added that memoir often also involves taking other people’s stories and weaving them into a larger story. In this sense, she felt that Hiroshima in the Morning was both an autobiography and a biography of sorts. Patti Smith said that she has always kept diaries and journals, so the work of crafting an autobiography was not so daunting. But she added that Just Kids is also a biography of a relationship as well as a biography of minor characters and of city of New York. Smith said she had a great responsibility to represent these other characters, for example, to research their body language and what they would be wearing, if even if they were just in there for a moment.
At one point the conversation turned to the role of memory in crafting life stories. Kai Bird recounted a criticism he received from his mother about something she said he got wrong in Crossing Mandelbaum Gate. He countered by showing her that his source was a letter she had herself written. Darin Strauss offered that memoir is essentially about memory, not merely about events. He described a funeral scene in Half a Life where he had written that only he and his father had attended. After the book was published his mother said she had been there too. Strauss said that he was not sure that he would change the way he depicted the scene because the important thing was how he felt about it, not how he remembered it. He emphasized that the book was about impressions he had, impressions that might have been very different had he written the book when he was 18 or when he was 60.
Several of the panelists were irked by Strauss’ implicit suggestion that memory is more important than fact. Smith in particular agreed that the atmosphere of memory is important, but insisted that it can be augmented. As a general point she added, “I don’t think it’s right to not have the facts.” Strauss, visibly flustered, responded, “ I said I was going to come up here and the one criterion was not to say anything that was going to make me lose the award and now…” The audience erupted with laughter and the tension was eased. But the exchange also reminded everyone that the evening was as much a contest as it was a conversation.
This duality was carried over in the finalists’ reading on March 9th. The format for the evening was self-consciously democratic. The readings were performed one category at a time, finalists read in alphabetical order by last name, and each was restricted to a maximum reading time of five minutes.
The time restriction presented a real logistical challenge, especially for those authors who hoped to court the attention of still undecided board members, and at times it felt a little like literary speed dating. Some of the readers dealt with the problem sensibly like Fiction finalist Jennifer Egan who began with page one and kept a natural pace. Others like Criticism finalist Susie Linfield showed off their formidable editing skills by creating a well-composed pastiche. Fiction finalist Jonathan Franzen seemed to deal with the problem by simply being Jonathan Franzen. He strode confidently to the podium in his standard uniform of dark belted jeans, dark glasses, and dark button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He uttered the word “basketball,” paused for a moment, and then read the remainder of his passage at one and a half speed. All in all, most of the twenty-six readers respected the time restriction. Terry Castle, finalist in Criticism, did not.
The NBCC was completely on target in its desire to use the awards as an occasion to promote a sense of authentic community among writers, readers, and critics, not merely as an opportunity for careerist advancement. The week’s pageantry reminded everyone that while reading is often a private act, the best books are also enjoyed as public occasions, even events. Perhaps they’re on to something.
Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing: Parul Sehgal
Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Dalkey Archive Press
Biography: Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: Or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other Press)
Poetry: C.D. Wright, One With Others: [a little book of her days] (Copper Canyon)
Criticism: Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland and the West (Yale University Press)
Nonfiction: Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House)
Autobiography: Darin Strauss, Half a Life (McSweeney’s)
Fiction: Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (Knopf)
ContributorAllyson Polsky McCabe
ALLYSON POLSKY MCCABE teaches writing at Yale.