Like many other literary organizations, the National Book Critics Circle confers prizes for fiction, nonfiction and poetry. But one of the NBCC prizes that will be awarded March 16 in New York recognizes a fluid, intellectual category that receives far too little celebration anywhere else: criticism. As the five finalists for the NBCC criticism prize demonstrate, the best works of this genre have the capacity to surprise, delight and inform us.
The most topically pointed is Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury). A straightforward polemic in reaction to the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., and the Black Lives Matters movement, Anderson’s book is an attempt to “make white rage visible, to blow graphite onto that hidden fingerprint and trace its historic movements.” To read this book is to receive a mini-seminar in the history of systemized racism, to trace what is essentially a century-long counterrevolution of devastating scope. The power in Anderson’s narrative comes from her ability to knit together differing strands of discriminatory policy — in education, housing, voting rights — and illuminate how deeply intertwined they are, how cumulative their effects. Anderson ends her book with a demand that we “step out of the shadow of white rage, deny its power, understand its unseemly goals, and . . . choose a different future.”
Polemics of a different stripe are on display in Mark Greif’s Against Everything (Pantheon). Greif is the co-founder of the Brooklyn literary journal n+1, and he shares with his cenacle formidable powers of analysis, a coolly ironical worldview and a vaguely Marxist orientation. The essays in “Against Everything” are an intellectual wonderland, superior pieces of cultural criticism that display the theorist’s knack for examining seemingly mundane elements of life — gym memberships, YouTube, reality TV — and finding the hidden structures and meanings within. Whether identifying the “utopian desires” that lie behind trends in food, “the debased aestheticism called consumerism” or “hipsterdom at its darkest . . . bohemia without the revolutionary core,” Greif brings a clarifying eye to the whirling chaos of contemporary life.
The idea of a biography of a book seems like a relatively recent wrinkle, but Alice Kaplan, in her engaging example of the genre, Looking for ‘The Stranger’: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Chicago) traces the concept to Pierre Audiat, who first conceived of the approach in 1924. This nugget of information is perfectly characteristic of Kaplan’s book, which provides a graceful survey of the evolution, publication and legacy of Camus’ masterwork. From Kaplan’s account, we learn such cocktail party-ready news that Camus’ iconic trench coat was custom-ordered from Brooks Brothers by Blanche Knopf, his American publisher; that Camus told a credulous high school assembly that the existentialist movement numbered “exactly 10,471”; and that the famously amoral novel also inspired a 1948 copycat murder in France. Even more illuminating are Kaplan’s insights into the implications of Camus’ tenacious commitment to a prose of the specific and the concrete; she notes that “the beauty of a narrator with no interior life” is that “the external world takes the place of rumination, analyses, feelings.”
Olivia Laing proves capable of Camus-like existential soulfulness in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Picador). A highly distinctive hybrid — part memoir, part art criticism — Laing’s book begins with a poetic conception of loneliness as “a populated place: a city in itself” and concludes that “physical existence is lonely by its nature.” Laing finds an emotional correlation to this metaphysic both in the physical geography of New York and in the work of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. All of these artists had piercing relations to the concept of loneliness; all of them become, in Laing’s hands, symbols of the essential anomie of urban living. Despite a whiff of self-absorption in this project, Laing is astute and incisive, and her conclusion that “loneliness is personal, and it is also political” is hard-won and affecting.
Peter Orner shares with Laing a willingness to put himself at the center of the story and to use literature as a frame for personal travails. There, though, the resemblance ends. Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (Catapult) has the conversational tone of a creative-writing prof eager to share some of his favorites with you. Orner has excellent taste: The subjects of his rhapsodic appreciations range from Eudora Welty to Lyonel Trouillot, and his love for the written word is palpable. He writes of being “freed up once again to choose a new book out of the infinite dark that constitutes all the unread books in the world” and the hope that “maybe this time I will find the one book that will save me from myself.” More simply: “I have come to the conclusion,” he says, “that reading keeps me alive, period.”
Regardless of who walks off with the NBCC criticism prize, we can all likely sign on for that.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
On March 15 at 6:30 p.m., the finalists for all the NBCC prizes will read from their work at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, 66 W. 12th St. in New York. The winners will be announced March 16 at 6:30 in the Tishman Auditorium. Both events are free and open to the public.