Tomorrow night, the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award will be announced in New York City. We thought this was a great opportunity to talk to NBCC President John Freeman about what makes this an award worth paying attention to. We''ll definitely be paying attention on Saturday night, and our own NBCC votes are noted here at the end.
TEV: It seems we're drowning in literary awards these days, so it can be hard to work up enthusiasm for another one but you've suggested that the NBCC award has no comparison in the literary world. How so?
JF: Well, I agree with you there – there are too many awards. The Guardian published a piece earlier this year which highlighted the danger of this – beyond mere reader/media saturation. The journalist argued we are beginning to substitute prizes for critical judgment. I don’t think we’ve got there yet, but we should be careful.
And that’s where our award, I think, stands out. All of the board members of the NBCC are working book critics. So our awards process basically ensures that books we read and consider for the prize don’t just get read, made a finalist or tossed aside. Much the time they get read and then written about and discussed in print, since many of our board members have the ability to choose what they review. So even if readers don't look up our winners, chances are our process has grazed their frontal lobe.
Here’s how it works. In March, after our previous year’s awards are over, the NBCC board of 24 critics breaks up into six book prize committees: memoir, biography, fiction, poetry, criticism, nonfiction, and autobiography. Some people sit on several committees. Each group then begins keeping a list of books that folks have read or might want to read. To put a book up onto the fiction list, for example, you have to be a member of the fiction committee. When a book is put up on the list, the committee members are then sent a copy to read. A lot of times they go ahead and review it.
So our awards process is happening in public all year long -- and we hope it’s adding to and supporting critical debate in this country. It’s about as transparent a process as you can get. You can find a list of board members online at the website – with their address, too, if you feel like Google Earthing them. There are no submission fees, so we get a lot of small press titles. And it’s open to books from any country, so as long as there's an English translation out in the U.S. during the calendar year, it’s fair game. We also have a large number of judges, so the chances of something slipping through the cracks is pretty small.
Finally, there is one more major factor which makes the NBCC different – more fluid perhaps – and more essential, I believe, as an award. Our members get to vote on the awards, and if twenty percent of them vote for a book, it automatically becomes a finalist. So not only are our board members talking about and writing about the books we are considering, our membership of 700 working critics is doing the same.* Open a book page on the weekend in almost any city in the country or click on a blog in many countries and you'll witness them there taking part in the conversation.
TEV: Why should we continue to care about book awards in general? It seems that, unlike British book awards, American ones don't seem to influence a book's fate much.
JF: Well, I have to disagree in part here. Geraldine Brooks is well up into the several hundred thousand sale territory with March, which we passed over for “The” March, by Doctorow. Jhumpa Lahiri is, I bet, nearing if not well past the million copy mark. These are big increases over what they sold before receiving the Pulitzer Prize, similar to the effect of the Booker Prize has on sales in England.
But to get to the point of your question, we should care about awards first and foremost because they help us decide what to read. There is an obscene number of books being published every year, every month, and awards are like these giant, all-reading, all seeing friends (we hope), which can whisper in your ear and say, hey, you gotta read this.
To stay valuable, though, they have to pick good books. They have to get it right, to put it crudely. I like to think the NBCC has got it right often enough to earn readers’ and booksellers trust. We awarded Toni Morrison long before the Nobel committee got to her, and Edward P. Jones before the Pulitzer tipped him. We awarded W.G. Sebald and John Cheever and Louise Erdrich when Love Medicine was passed over by other prizes and Frederick Seidel before he began to gather the cult following he has now. Richard Powers was a finalist four (!) times. We’re the only book prize organization to highlight the brave work of Robert Fisk or William T. Vollmann for Rising Up and Rising Down. None of our judges are paid. We do this because we love it and so the lists you see are the distillation of enormous passion and respect for the work that goes into writing a biography, a collection of poems, a novel, or, say, a 3000 page “essay” on violence.
TEV: Philosophically, what's the point of a book award anyway? To acknowledge merit? To spur sales? All or none of the above?
JF: I think the primary point behind any book award has to be to acknowledge merit. It kills me to see a novel reviewed, as Vikram Chandra’s was recently in several venues, in a shameless and mind-bogglingly parochial manner, as if it were a big budget Hollywood movie. How much a writer gets paid or how a book gets promoted is really beside the point. Sure, a publisher can put ads out there, make a nice dust jacket, trim and edit a manuscript niftily. They might even do some co-op advertising and put the book at a place in the store where you can’t help but see it. But well over 98 percent of the work is the author’s – it’s them taking time out of a culture of obsessive connectivity to be alone and dream up stories that entertain and enlighten or disturb or tell us something we didn’t know before. If they’re good, they’re doing it in a way that is beautiful and essential and all their own. We live in such an instant culture that this sacrifice needs recognition.
But then there is the larger sort of cathedral in the sky that prizes erect for the forms they honor. I think there’s a large schism between academia and the literate world, and the big danger of this disconnect is a creeping fuzziness about what we’re talking about. What is a memoir? What is a novel? What is a lyric poem? James Wood wrote in his first book about the broken estate of tradition – I think in some ways awards can be the sign posts along this collapsed footbridge between our current time and the illustrious past of literary forms. I have never had a happier reading time in my life than when I first moved to New York after college and read through the first four decades of NBA winners. It was astonishing -- like watching post-war American literature develop. Salinger’s early stories, Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, Singer’s stories, Stone's Dog Soldiers, Pynchon’s towering inferno of a novel, Ellen Gilchrist’s short fiction, Delillo’s White Noise, all those Updike novels, the big early realistic novels of Joyce Carol Oates, and lesser known writers like William Wharton’s Birdy or big bloated beasts that were hard not to love, like From Here to Eternity, by James Jones. I don’t know if I would have gotten to all these books had it not been for the NBA.
TEV: Can you tell us something about the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing?
JF: It is a prize set up in honor of one of our founding members, Nona Balakian -- a critic and longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review -- to award the work of a critic who had done an exceptional job writing about books during the previous year. Again, there’s no entry fee, but you have to be a member in order to apply. Although it doesn’t get as much press attention as the book awards, it’s pretty hotly debated and near and dear to a lot of board members' hearts – because this is what we do. So the reviewing which is inventive and has a strong voice and masters the material really stands out – it’s often the submission you wish you had written yourself. Our former winners are a diverse group. The novelist Laurie Stone won one year, but has since moved on to do more performance work. Albert Mobilio won during a period when he was doing a lot of reviewing. Now you can see his handiwork all over the pages of Bookforum, which he edits. Some other recent winners include Ma ureen McLane, Elizabeth Ward, Wyatt Mason, George Scialabba, David Orr, Thomas Mallon, Daniel Mendelsohn, Brigitte Frase, who reviews quite frequently now over at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Scott McLemee, who you can read at Insiderhighered.com, and who will be coming up to New York to announce the winner of this year’s prize.
TEV: Can we ask you which titles you're particularly pulling for, or will that reveal too much?
JF: I wish I could be like one of those Booker judges and start blabbing – while I complain about the chore of opening all those packages -- but I can’t. I’ve got to save my argumentative jujitsu for the Saturday meeting, when I’m going to try and put some vibrato in my voice and pull for my favorites.
TEV: What can TEV readers who want to follow the Saturday announcement of the finalists do?
JF: Well, the NBCC”s blog, Critical Mass, is going to post the finalists as we announce them live at a party in New York at 6:45 PM (EST) on Saturday. We hope to have video up of the announcement pretty shortly thereafter. We’re also going to send the list out to editors and writers and bloggers so chances are you’ll see it linked to – or we hope – here at TEV and elsewhere in the blog world, like at Frank Wilson’s Books Inq. or at the Complete Review. You’ll probably see an AP story move about the awards pretty quickly and we’re hoping that will get picked up in the print world. Finally, once the list is up I hope people sound off on it, discuss it, and, most importantly, if they haven’t done so already, get a chance to read the books. We’re finally down to long-lists now, and knowing what’s in the running, I can say this is going to be one of our most interesting years yet.
* TEV NOTE: For those who are wondering my five fiction votes were for The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers (as noted yesterday), Ticknor, Dead Fish Museum, Theft and Black Swan Green. In other categories, I included Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map as well as Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost. I gave E.L. Doctorow and Lawrence Weschler votes for criticism and Frederick Seidel got my lone poetry nod. Let the carping and second guessing begin!