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Find more Both a Literary Marathon and a Talent Show
Editor’s note: Although Booklist Associate Editor Donna Seaman served on the National Book Critics Circle board of directors for six years, this year she attended the events surrounding the NBCC Awards (held March 7 and 8) as an observer. She brought us the following report.
With 25 writers sharing the stage on one very cold night in New York City, the National Book Critics Circle Finalists’ Reading was both a literary marathon and a talent show. Every year, the NBCC board, which is comprised of 23 book critics and book review editors from around the country, reads and argues its way through hundreds of books to arrive at the shortlists: 30 titles sorted into 6 categories. There used to be 25 finalists in 5 categories, but the category that combined biography and memoir was proving problematic while I was on the board, and I was one of the majority who, after much debate, voted to separate the two and create a new category for autobiography. The memoirists were up first this year and they proved to be lively and affecting readers.
To keep the event from dragging on as long as the Academy Awards, the writers in each category are introduced as a group; each writer then takes the stage and reads a passage from their book without further ado. Always a heady experience, the readings were made even more intriguing this year by Alison Bechdel, who projected pages from her graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, and began her reading with the line, “I am a lesbian.” In another arresting appearance, a noticeably nervous Dave Eggers took the stage with a poised and delighted Valentino Achak Deng, the subject (and, some might argue, coauthor) of Eggers’ novel What is the What. Eggers seemed particularly chagrined by the fact that he and Deng had inadvertently dressed exactly alike.
It’s always fun to see and hear writers, those entities we know only as words on pages and voices in our heads. It lends a new dimension of understanding to see, for example, the hilariously campy self-deprecation of Daniel Mendelsohn (his memoir and family history, The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million won the autobiography award) or the giddiness of Simon Schama (his Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution won the nonfiction award). When Schama accepted his award the following night, he was even more ebullient and made a point of thanking librarians for their crucial assistance.
Do the readings influence the judging process? A zestful reading can be an affirming influence, but it is not a mind-changer. The NBCC board meets the next day to choose the winners, completing their deliberations shortly before the 6 p.m. award ceremony. There, all the writers who read the night before are seated—perhaps a tad anxiously—in the audience. This year, several writers were clearly taken by surprise with their wins. Julie Phillips, author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, was particularly gracious and eloquent. Her subject had clearly gotten under her skin, and her gratitude was as much for Sheldon’s sake as for her own. Kiran Desai, the fiction winner for The Inheritance of Loss, quoted Jorges Luis Borges, and beamed when she thanked her mother, Anita Desai, a superb writer in her own right, who was in the audience, beaming back.
For those of us whose lives are dedicated to reviewing books in the hope that others will read them and benefit accordingly, the most inspiring speech of the two-night literary celebration was given by John Leonard, this year’s winner of the Ivan Sandroff Lifetime Achievement Award. This unique recognition of an individual’s devotion to literature and books has in the past been bestowed upon Bill Henderson, founder of the Pushcart Press, and Studs Terkel, the great oral historian, interviewer, and advocate for free expression. It was inspiring this time around to see an ardent and caring book reviewer so honored. After an illuminating and heartfelt introduction by Mary Gordon, who applauded his support of women writers, Leonard spoke with insight, humor, and conviction about the privilege and challenges of writing about books. (See the blog Critical Mass at the NBCC Web site, http://www.bookcritics.org/, for John Leonard’s speech and much more, including photographs.)
Attending the NBCC events was both fun and provocative. At the NBCC membership meeting there was much discussion of the sea change at work in the newspaper world. As newspapers reinvent themselves in response to declining readership and advertising, book review sections are becoming endangered. It’s a paradox that book coverage is shrinking while the number of books being published rises. I was very proud of Booklist for both our inclusive approach and smooth navigation of the online world. I was also pleased to see that we remain ahead of the pack with our expert reviewing of genre fiction, the subject of an NBCC panel discussion. It’s often said that one sign of a bountiful journey is the pleasure of return. It feels good to be back at Booklist, where good books—from romance to poetry, mystery to biography, historical fiction to science—are accorded the respect and appreciation they deserve.
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