National Book Critics Circle celebrates 40 years of reviewing

October 24, 2013
The National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974.
The National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974.

To celebrate its upcoming 40th anniversary, the National Book Critics Circle is asking members to choose their favorite book from all the titles that have ever been finalists for the NBCC awards.

That’s a giant list of possibilities that stretches back to the organization’s first winners in 1975. That year, John Ashbery took the poetry prize and E.L. Doctorow won the fiction prize for “Ragtime.”

NBCC vice president Jane Ciabattari says, “This is a reminder that the NBCC awards are the only awards chosen by the critics themselves after a year-long evaluation process by our 24-member board, not through publisher submissions.”

This week, you can start to see those all-time favorites posted on the organization’s Web site. It’s a list of great titles, of course, along with brief explanations, such as this note from feminist critic Susan Gubar:

“I have taught Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ to generations of freshmen at Indiana University and still find it such a brilliant imaginative feat that helps students (and me) come to terms with losses big and small.”

On the other hand, novelist Richard Powers objects to the whole enterprise: “The ranking pastime has always struck me as too sports-like,” he writes, “too dismissive and competition-driven, born in exactly the kind of consumerist commodity-fetishism that only literature is still strong enough to save me from.”

Looking over the hundreds of titles to choose from, he’s more impressed by the bounty. “I see my whole adult life as a reader, the years spent colliding with titles that proved how paltry my preferences were for embracing the full range of hazards available to the human soul — from the shocks of Doctorow and Ashbery and Fussell and Kingston and Bishop and Wilbur and Rosen, who saw me through high school and college, to the awe of Egan and Gleick and Gander and Caro and Millet and Spiotta and Johnson, who are seeing me into the first stages of an astonished and grateful old age.”

Look for more of these literary reflections each weekday over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the NBCC board is winnowing its list of finalists for this year’s annual prizes in fiction, general nonfiction, biography, autobiography, criticism and poetry. For the first time, the organization will also confer the John Leonard Award for the best first book. Unlike the NBCC’s other prizes, this award will be chosen by the NBCC membership at large, nearly 500 critics, literary bloggers and book publishing personnel.

All the awards will be announced in March at a ceremony in New York.

 

 

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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Chris Richards · October 22, 2013