NBCC: We Take No Chances

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.


  1. Well you may find the fiction choices tame. But I will speak up in favor of a few of the non-fiction and biography finalists: Debby Applegate’s The Most Famous Man in the World, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Jason Robert’s A Sense of the World, and Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree.

    They were all excellent, interesting books that captivated my interest.

  2. I love you, Ed. You’re probably my favorite book and book culture commentator out there and I’ve picked up more than a handful of books based on your enthusiasm (including The End of Mr Y), but when you strap on your “I know what’s best” tone and declare you know the motives of others, you’re at your worst. You have no idea what the “fundamental goal” of the NBCC is?

    Couldn’t the motives simply be to pick the books they felt were most accomplished? Why should Ford and McCarthy be penalized for past success or accolades if what they produced this year is among the best? The award isn’t for the best underappreciated book, or the best book by someone who hasn’t really gotten sufficient attention over the career, or the best book by someone who doesn’t annoy Ed Champion with his ostentatious philanthropism.

    You approvingly cite the Gaitskill, Vollmann and Ishiguro from the 2005 list. Those books/authors are every bit as celebrated as Ford/McCarthy/Desai, yet somehow that’s a nod toward literary innovation while 2006 is Olive Garden-land?

    Weak effort.

  3. Hey! Sarabande Books’ Lia Purpura is a finalist in criticism for her title “On Looking” — surely a bit off the beaten path and a big surprise for us….

  4. Ed, have to say I agree with May on this one. The NBCC shouldn’t care about how safe its selections are. It should care about how good they are, since, as critics, they are charged with picking the the best or most noteworthy books of the year. Thus, it makes a lot more sense to judge their nominations on those terms.

  5. The NBCC is not denying comments from people who disagree with this year’s choices. Including the poster you mentioned who complained about a lack of female Balakian winners. If we were denying her a say, we would have deleted that post. The only people whose comments are being denied on the NBCC’s site are those posting anonymously or abusively (and we’ve explained our reasoning behind that here). Everyone else is welcome, whether they agree with us or not.

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