Reflecting a year of soul-searching about race and racism, Paul Beatty’s novel “The Sellout” and Margo Jefferson’s memoir “Negroland” were among the winners at the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony Thursday night in New York.
Beatty’s crackling satire involves modern-day segregation, slavery and a host of racial stereotypes upended. Jefferson’s memoir, meanwhile, offers candid and often ironic commentary of her upbringing in an affluent African American family in Chicago during the 1950s and ’60s.
Just as timely is the winner of this year’s nonfiction prize: “Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” by Sam Quinones. In his sweeping study of addiction, Quinones, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, moves from Mexico to small-town America and beyond to explore the conspiracy of poverty, crime and pharmaceutical misdirection that has resulted in a deadly explosion of painkiller abuse in America.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s widely praised book about black life, “Between the World and Me,” was a finalist for the criticism prize, but it was beaten out by “The Argonauts,” an equally personal work of social criticism by Maggie Nelson. Nelson’s reflections on gender, family and art offer startling insights and an iconoclastic rethinking of what criticism can look like.
The biography prize was awarded to “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley,” by Charlotte Gordon. Gordon’s study emphasizes the radical work of these groundbreaking feminist thinkers and writers.
The poetry prize went to Ross Gay for “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” In her review of the collection last year, The Post’s poetry critic Elizabeth Lund said Gay’s “charming poems give readers permission to feel joyful.” That’s a sentiment clearly conveyed in such lines as these:
I can’t stop
my gratitude, which includes, dear reader,
you for staying here with me,
for moving your lips just so as I speak.
Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.
As was previously announced, Wendell Berry received the NBCC Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his many decades as an environmental activist and writer.
Kirstin Valdez Quade received the John Leonard First Book Prize for “Night at the Fiestas.”
Carlos Lozada, the nonfiction book critic at The Washington Post, received this year’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Unlike the NBCC’s other awards and honors, this award includes a $1,000 cash prize.
Founded in 1974, the nonprofit NBCC has almost 700 members. The board chooses the finalists and winners of the annual prizes, except for the recipient of the John Leonard First Book Prize, which is selected by the membership at large.
Ron Charles, the editor of Book World, is a board member of the NBCC.