The ontological challenge of the NBCC Criticism prize

“The Krause Project,” by Jonathan Franzen, is one of five finalists for this year’s Criticism prize from the National Book Critics Circle. (Courtesy of FSG)
“The Krause Project,” by Jonathan Franzen, is one of five finalists for this year’s Criticism prize from the National Book Critics Circle. (Courtesy of FSG)

Among all the awards for best novel, best nonfiction, best children’s book, best Western, best mystery, best lesbian erotica, etc., one prize stands apart for its unapologetic intellectuality: the Criticism prize from the National Book Critics Circle.

While a book such as Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” might show up on half a dozen prize lists, the finalists on the NBCC Criticism list are often titles you’ve never heard of. Sometimes, these authors address delightfully arcane subjects; other times, they turn issues around in ways you’ve never considered. Last year’s winner, for instance, was Marina Warner’s “Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.”

This is, so far as I know, the only nonacademic contest in the United States for a book of criticism. [UPDATE: Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, has reminded me that the Poetry Foundation recently started a new annual $7,500 award for a book of poetry criticism. The first Pegasus Award will be given in June, 2014.]

Here is our round-up review of all five finalists for the NBCC Criticism prize, which will be awarded, along with the organization’s other five prizes, on March 13. But before that ceremony, I thought it would be interesting to check in with Eric Banks, chair of the NBCC Criticism committee.

Banks says the NBCC judges considered about 30 titles this year, making it one of the smaller categories (the fiction category can run to several hundred choices).

But defining a work of criticism is a unique challenge for these judges, even before they start nominating books. “Committee members are always asking themselves just what criticism consists of,” Banks says. “And not everyone is in agreement, which makes this one of the more fascinating awards the NBCC gives.”

That ambiguity persists as individual titles are considered for the prize. “Typically, when someone on the committee says that he or she has read or reviewed a book that the Criticism committee just has to consider, that person will say why he or she considers it a work of criticism. It must be the most reflexive, self-critical set of criteria ever devised: You basically have to say why some book works as criticism for it be considered a work of criticism.”

Those criteria vary, says Banks, who is also director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. “But we’re always looking for a work or collection that gives a forthright and strong — and, it’s hoped, fresh — perspective. Sometimes, it’s a book that newly revisits the boundaries of criticism; I’m thinking of Eula Biss’s ‘Notes from No Man’s Land’ from a couple of years ago. Originality and authority strongly compliment each other here.”

Many of the NBCC judges are novelists, poets or nonfiction writers, but they’re all critics, which makes this category of particular interest to them. “Maybe it’s like the bird convention where the dodos gave the passenger pigeons a lifetime achievement award,” Banks jokes. “It’s not exactly a cash cow for publishers. But it’s important for us to be able to honor our own. And I think these are always among the most interesting books we look at each year.”

Next week, we’ll publish a round-up review of the Poetry finalists.

(Disclosure: Later this month, I will start a three-year term on the NBCC board.)

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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