Tuesday, January 17, 2006


NBCC nominations

As Hillel Italie has already reported, the National Book Critics Circle announced its nominees on Saturday night to a packed crowd at the McNally Robinson store in Soho. By the time I arrived, the front area was too jammed to permit any real movement: I stood there in my raincoat and chatted with board member Art Winslow and decided it would be too much effort to thrash my way toward the fruit-and-cheese table. Then the announcements began, invisibly, behind a scrum of backs and heads.

After a short preamble by John Freeman, Colson Whitehead read off the fiction nominees and was gently chided for not mentioning the respective publishers. No real surprises here, which is a disappointment: the NBCC often includes a left-field candidate, and sometimes actually bestows the award on this unsuspecting figure. Neither E.L. Doctorow, Mary Gaitskill, Kazuo Ishiguro, nor Andrea Levy fit the bill, and even William T. Vollman, in the wake of his upset victory at the National Book Awards, seems strangely (to use the Seinfeldian phrase) spongeworthy. Still, it's a solid slate, and I'll complain no further.

Edmund White announced the biography nominees. I was thrilled to learn that Jonathan Coe's life of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, had made the cut. Then came the nonfiction slate, which included Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster--excellent news for Dalkey Archive panjandrum Chad Post, standing just a few feet away with forthcoming DA author Mark Binelli. Sharon Olds did the honors for the poetry slate, keeping her comments short and sweet.

Next Richard Howard, doubtless using either his monocle or pince-nez, ran down the criticism nominees, making a number of characteristic detours which I couldn't quite hear. Such is the firepower and media clout of this category (which I chaired for several years during my time on the NBCC board) that some papers have omitted the details from Hillel Italie's report. For shame! To redress the situation, let me do a sonorous roll call myself: John Updike's Still Looking, Arthur Danto's Natural Wonders, Hal Crowther's Gather at the River, William Logan's Undiscovered Country, and Eliot Weinberger's What Happened Here. Give them a round of applause, folks. And let me say a few words. The Weinberger, however worthy, is just barely a criticism title--I can only imagine the logic-chopping behind closed doors at the board meeting, having done a good deal of it myself. Updike, a tremendous book critic, is less scintillating on the visual arts (as Geoff Dyer conceded in his smart NYTBR piece) and I can't really see him winning. Surely Jed Perl's New Art City, which got a mild drubbing from Updike himself, deserved a spot on the list.

Me, I'm for the Logan. His ferocity may put off some of the judges, just as it did in 1999, when Reputations of the Tongue was nominated. Yes, it can be painful to see one of your favorite poets take a licking from the guy: you finish the essay and feel like you've just been visiting a friend in the hospital. I'll never agree with him about, say, C.K. Williams. But for sheer wit and critical stringency, he's hard to beat, and the celebratory pieces in The Undiscovered Country (on Milton, Whitman, Lowell, Marianne Moore, Geoffrey Hill, Randall Jarrell) hit just the right note of irreverent delight. Come on, he's overdue, having published three substantial volumes of criticism since 1998. Give him the prize already!

Whoops, I almost forgot the autobiography category. Joyce Johnson announced the candidates, two of which strike me as obvious leaders of the pack: Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul. The Didion is a deserving choice. At this point, though, with a Broadway adapation in the works and a National Book Award on the author's mantelpiece, the board may feel redundant giving it the nod. Pamuk's weird and wandering self-portrait, refracted through the history and topography of his native city, seems more likely to me. But hey, I was wrong about American Idol, so why trust me on this one?

Finally: the Nona Balakian Citation for reviewing went to Harper's contributor Wyatt Mason, who I met for about five seconds before he scooted out the door. In his prefatory remarks, former Balakian winner Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out that his own moment in the sun had been conspicuously omitted from the coverage in the New York Times. Bummer. The good news: when the NBCC finally erects its snazzy, Frank-Gehry-designed headquarters in 2007, there will be a critical Wall of Fame in the lobby, right behind the Coke machine.

Apropos of your paraphrase of my remarks at the NBCC announcements, the point of my remarks that night--I had hoped this was clear--was not, as your blog suggests, a Mendelsohnian ego trip ("what a bummer!"), but rather that the Times, like much else in the culture, didn't consider the reviewing award important enough to mention in its coverage--and indeed, has rarely mentioned the award, although it always lists the other categories. The failure of the culture to take criticism seriously seemed to me a symptom worth mentioning, albeit in (I thought) a humorous way. As we both know, there will never be a "criticism hall of fame"--particularly since the advent of the Internet has made it possible for anyone to publish his views. Cheers.
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