Getting it Right
The National Book Critics Circle Awards: A Retrospective
By John Freeman
Publishers in North America churned out more than 200,000 books last year. That means in the time it takes you to read this piece, two or three new books will be published. If you pause in the middle to refill your coffee mug, another book will come off the presses. Go outside to let your dog pee and—look out!—one more book has been born.
The magnitude of this Gutenberg avalanche presents all kinds of dilemmas for librarians and booksellers, but it also affects literary judges. I know, because for the last two years I chaired the National Book Critics Circle. Unlike other book prizes, the NBCC awards have no entry fee, no citizenship requirement and no limit on how many titles a publisher can submit. Entries pile in by the pallet-full.
I’ve read essays by judges wearied by this barrage. Not me. If you really love books, being a literary-prize judge turns every mail day into your birthday. See something you want to read? Chances are it’ll be submitted, along with books you never knew you might want to read. In 2007, for me these included books on the Beatles, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, a biography of baseball executive Branch Rickey and Peter Behrens’ novel, The Law of Dreams.
None of these books made the National Book Critics Circle’s short list, but not because they were overlooked. One of the reasons I think the NBCC tends to get it right (we gave a prize to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which was overlooked elsewhere) is that it’s not just one person making the decision—or even five. The judging board runs to 24 people, and the circle’s 800 members have a say, too. If 20 percent of them vote for a book, it’s automatically a finalist. When a large number of these cranky, educated, passionate people get behind a book—or a project—it’s a powerful (sometimes noisy) thing.
That’s what happened in March of last year, when a wave of book-section cutbacks hit U.S. newsstands. From Los Angeles to Memphis, newspapers slimmed down or picked up more wire copy. NBCC critics got involved in protests and posted more than 100 essays on the circle’s blog, Critical Mass (bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com), discussing the role of a critic in an era when how we get our news is changing.
In the end, the hullabaloo didn’t save the book review; only enlightened criticism can save itself (that and newspaper owner support). But I think good judgment helps explain why we need critics. So I was incredibly happy that in a year full of obvious choices, the 2007 NBCC awards, given out in March, went to books with bardic yawp, like Junot Díaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; books with grim but important lessons about American history, like Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid; and books that told us what we thought we knew about important figures might not be entirely true, like Tim Jeal’s Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer. These and others rose from the multitudes and made all those trips to the post office worth it.
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