The National Book Critics Circle Awards nominations are up. And it’s clear to me that the NBCC’s fundamental goal here is to play things safer than a dinner for four at the Olive Garden. The NBCC awards were once the place to find books representing literary innovation (witness the 2005 list of finalists, which included Gaitskill, Ishiguro and Vollmann). But what we have this year is Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy and Kiran Desai: authors who have already received considerable plaudits. It’s good to see Adichie on the list. She’s the only fictive sparkle here, the underrated book that the NBCC should remind readers about. But in a year that included Ngugi wa Thiong’O’s Wizard of the Crow and Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y, rewarding Dave Eggers for his “philanthropy”-as-opportunism strikes me as a disingenuous commendation, about as honorable as nominating Michael Moore agitprop for a distinguished film award. And when you compare these finalists against the National Book Award finalists, one begins to wonder if it’s the National Book Foundation that’s the real champion of tomes that rock the boat.
Of course, there are a few sparkles amidst the predictable. In the memoir category, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a quirky and commendable choice. Frederick Crews’ Follies of the Wise has a modicum of punk rock chic attached to it, as does Julie Phillips’ biography of James Tiptree, Jr.
But otherwise, it’s a pretty tepid list. Even stranger, the Critical Mass thread is now being heavily moderated, as those who take understandable umbrage over these choices (particularly over the lack of women awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing) are denied their say. Literary elite indeed.