Long Live the Written Word!


Members of the Algonquin Round Table.

If you fear that book culture is vanishing, it helps to attend the National Book Critics Circle’s yearly awards ceremony, as OTR did last week at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium.

The NBCC was founded in 1974 to extend the legacy of the Algonquin Round Table, that erstwhile Friar’s Club of the 1920s New York literary world, and the ceremony was equal parts oddball and serious—like, one imagines, the Round Table itself was. On Thursday night, the NBCC honored one book each in the categories of poetry, criticism, autobiography, biography, nonfiction and fiction for the publishing year 2012. Thirty books—a mix of recherché, quirky, quaint and colossal—were nominated in total.

NBCC member William Deresiewicz, author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter, came in from Portland, Ore., to receive the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. At the podium, Mr. Deresiewicz said that criticism is “an exercise that tends to default to defense or justification.”

“Criticism has an insecurity complex, if not an inferiority complex,” he continued. “No one feels they have to defend movies at the Oscars.”

The feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar were honored with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. On a prerecorded video, Ms. Gubar, who has ovarian cancer, said that while she admires women who do menial housework like cleaning the dishes and vacuuming, she has spent her life avoiding those chores.

But, she added, “I do cook and change sheets.”

D.A. Powell, author of Useless Landscape, received the poetry award; Marina Warner, who wrote Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, won in the criticism category; and Leanne Shapton took home the prize in autobiography for Swimming Studies. None was to accept their awards.

Two gargantuan tomes won in the biography and nonfiction categories: Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, a 736-page behemoth chronicling only about five years of LBJ’s life, and Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, which, it was added, one NBCC member called the “Middlemarch of nonfiction.” Mr. Caro was not in attendance, but Mr. Solomon appeared to accept his prize.

“It’s obviously very unfashionable to show up,” Mr. Solomon quipped, adding: “I’ve always been struck by the discernment of the judges—never more so than tonight.”

Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, won the fiction award.

“Fiction writers always show up,” he said.

Long Live the Written Word!