The National Book Critics Circle announced yesterday in New York City that its 1981 award for fiction would go to Shirley Hazzard for her novel "The Transit of Venus." Ronald Steel received the general nonfiction award for his biography, "Walter Lippmann and the American Century." Helen Vendler's "Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets" was voted the year's most distinguished book of criticism and Frederick Seidel's collection "Sunrise" was the winner for poetry.

Meeting at the Algonquin Hotel, 18 members of the NBCC Board of Directors -- including Washingtonians Brigitte Weeks, editor of The Washington Post Book World, Jack Beatty, literary editor of The New Republic, and Robert R. Harris, book editor of The Wilson Quarterly -- spent four hours in discussion and repeated ballotings in selecting the winning titles.

In fiction, the five nominees included, besides Hazzard's book, E. L. Doctorow's "Loon Lake," Walker Percy's "The Second Coming," Anne Tyler's "Morgan's Passing" and William Maxwell's "So Long, See You Tomorrow."

An initial round of voting quickly eliminated all but the Hazzard and Maxwell novels. In subsequent ballots each of these received nine votes. One and a half hours later it was agreed that Maxwell's story, though "a small gem," lacked the stature of "The Transit of Venus," a panoramic novel that achieved what one member described as "wisdom" as it traces the lives of its characters, principally two Australian sisters named Grace and Caro, across 30 years and several continents. Their story, an intricate patterning of love affairs and friendships, led one reviewer to describe the novel's essence as "a sequence of chance encounters acquiring meaning chiefly through human commitment to a purpose, a belief, a passion." In the background loom the bloodiest political events of our time: the Korean War, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, political chaos in South America, assassinations in the United States, the war in Southeast Asia. Hazzard's political convictions were formed in part by 10 years' working in the United Nations, a period which came to an end when she publiched "Defeat of an Ideal" in 1973, a critique of the international organization.

In general nonfiction, the voting was equally close between a pair of biographies, the runner-up here bveing Jean Strouse's revelatory "Alice James," a study of the brilliant but neurasthenic sister of novelist Henry James and psychologist William James. Ronald Steel's winning life of Walter Lippmann details the career of perhaps the most influential newspaper columnist of the century, a man who knew and helped make 12 presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson.

The criticism category saw the most straightforward balloting. Two posthumous books were eliminated early on -- Vladimir Nabokov's "Lectures on Literature" and R. P. Blackmur's "Henry Adams" -- as was Paul Fussell's study of travel writing, "Abroad." The final contest developed between Barbara Novak's "Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875" and Helen Vendler's gathering of her poetry reviews and essays. The widely held feeling that Vendler was the best poetry critic now at work finally persuaded supporters of other books to vote for "Part of Nature, Part of Us."

In poetry itself, the category in which many critics feel the least sure-footed, the wrangling was intense and protracted. After passing over books by Soviet expatriate Joseph Brodsky and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren, as well as James Schuyler's genial "The Morning of the Poem," the board was left to choose between James Merrill's mystical "Scripts for the Pageant" and Frederick Seidel's somewhat sour "Sunrise." Merrill's poem, the final volume in a trilogy that includes "The Book of Ephraim" and "Mirabell: Books of Number" (which received a National Book Award), was widely held to be the favorite. But the impression that "Scripts" failed to measure up to Merrill's previous volumes, as well as impassioned advocacy for Seidel by some board members, finally led the other directors to choose "Sunrise."

A presentation ceremony and cocktail party will take place on Jan. 22 at the Time-Life Building in New York.