Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” won the fiction prize from the National Book Critics Circle on Thursday night in New York. Her exquisite story about a poor woman who marries a small-town minister in Iowa is the final volume of a celebrated trilogy that began with “Gilead,” which won the NBCC fiction prize in 2005.
New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast won the NBCC autobiography prize for “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” a bestselling memoir about taking care of her aged parents. This is the first time that a graphic book has won the NBCC autobiography award. Chast told her agent she was so sure she wouldn’t win that she was willing to bet the lives of her two parrots. As she accepted the prize, she said, “I want to thank my parents. I hope somewhere they are aware that their story has touched many people.”
This is also the first year that a single book has appeared as a finalist in two categories: Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” was a finalist in criticism and poetry. Her book, a series of prose poems about race and racism, won the poetry prize.
The criticism prize, meanwhile, was awarded to “Ellen Willis: The Essential Ellen Willis,” edited by the author’s daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz. Willis, who died in 2006, was an essayist and journalist who wrote, among other things, music reviews for Rolling Stone, Village Voice and the New Yorker.
And a third New Yorker writer, drama critic John Lahr, won the biography prize for “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”
David Brion Davis won the general nonfiction prize for “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation,” his most recent book in a career that spans 50 years of scholarship.
As was previously announced, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison received the NBCC Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her many decades as an editor, professor and author. In her remarks, Morrison described the publishing climate of 45 years ago when she published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.” At that time, books by black authors — no matter what their subjects or genres — were frequently shelved together in bookstores and reviewed together in newspapers “simply because of the race of the author.” She offered special praise to John Leonard (1939–2008), a founding member of the NBCC. “When I published my ‘Bluest Eye,’ the reception was, I’m going to say, slight, even hostile,” she said. “The novel was not taken seriously until John Leonard read it.” She went on to thank the NBCC for encouraging authors and quality book criticism.
Alexandra Schwartz, a 27-year-old assistant editor at the New Yorker, received this year’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. In accepting the award, Schwartz said, “It’s a total thrill to see my name on the same page as Toni Morrison’s name. The last time that happened was in my 10th grade English class.” In closing, she offered “a tip of the hat” to her parents: “They always told me that I was too critical. I’m so glad they were right.” Unlike the NBCC’s other awards and honors, this award includes a $1,000 cash prize.
The NBCC is an organization of nearly 700 reviewers and book section editors.
Disclosure: Ron Charles is a board member of the NBCC.