Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

National Book Critics Circle Announces Winners for 2017 Awards

by Kate Tuttle | Mar-15-2018
















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Kate Tuttle, NBCC President,

Tonight, at the New School in New York, the National Book Critics Circle announced the recipients of its book awards for publishing year 2017. The winners include Joan Silber’s Improvement (Counterpoint), a dazzlingly inventive and deeply compassionate novel whose multiple storylines reveal shared human moments of love, loss, fate, guilt, and redemption, and Frances FitzGerald for The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon & Schuster), a masterfully broad and deep chronicle of the cultural, historical, and political influence of one religious strain of American thought. 

Layli Long Soldier was awarded the poetry prize for Whereas (Graywolf), a brilliantly innovative text that examines history, landscapes, and identities, in particular the often silenced voices of Native American women. The criticism award was presented to Carina Chocano for You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks, & Other Mixed Messages (HMH/Mariner), a collection of essays in which Chocano challenges and interrogates the gender roles found in media and pop culture.

Xiaolu Guo's Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China (Grove) was given the prize in autobiography; the book is a sweeping and brutal coming of age story of the author's growing awareness of the world beyond her impoverished Chinese childhood. The biography prize went to Caroline Fraser for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books), about the author of the Little House series, in which Fraser mined letters, diaries, and other papers to both explain and widen our understanding of the iconic author of some of our most beloved children's books. 

Carmen Maria Machado’s fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf) was the recipient of the John Leonard Prize, recognizing an outstanding first book in any genre. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, the University of Iowa, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.

The recipient of the 2017 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, given to an NBCC member for exceptional critical work, was Charles Finch. Charles Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Inheritance and A Beautiful Blue Death, which was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007. He is a graduate of Yale and Oxford, and lives in Chicago. His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, is also available from St. Martin's Press. His reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere.  The Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, endowed by longtime NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award was John McPhee.  Born in 1931 in Princeton, New Jersey, John McPhee is a journalist, essayist, author, and longtime journalism professor at Princeton University. He is the author of more than 30 books, beginning with “A Sense of Where You Are,” published in 1965; his most recent book is “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.” His lifetime contribution to letters and book culture include his pioneering work in the fields of journalism and creative nonfiction; his explorations of widely varying topics, including science, sports, and the environment; and his mentorship of countless young writers and journalists. He has previously been honored with the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Wallace Stegner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle Awards are given annually to honor outstanding writing and to foster a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. The awards are open to any book published in the United States in English (including translations). The National Book Critics Circle comprises more than 700 critics and editors from leading newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Recipients of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Awards


Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf) 


Carina Chocano, You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks, & Other Mixed Messages (HMH/Mariner)


Xiaolu Guo, Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China (Grove) 


Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books)


Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon & Schuster)


Joan Silber, Improvement (Counterpoint) 

The John Leonard Prize

Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf)

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing

Charles Finch

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award

John McPhee

Bios of award recipients:

Layli Long Soldier holds a B.F.A. from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an M.F.A. from Bard College. She has served as a contributing editor of Drunken Boat. Her poems have appeared in The American PoetThe American ReaderThe Kenyon Review Online, and other publications. She is the recipient of the 2015 NACF National Artist Fellowship, a 2015 Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a 2016 Whiting Award. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Carina Chocano is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Elle, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Wired, The California Sunday Magazine, Bust, The Washington Post, Vulture, The Cut, GOOD magazine, Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and many others. She has been a film and TV critic at The Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, and She lives in Los Angeles. 

Xiaolu Guo is the author of Village of StoneA Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for LoversTwenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, and I Am China. She has been named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. Guo has also directed several award-winning films including She, A Chinese and a documentary about London, Late at Night. She lives in London and Berlin.

Caroline Fraser was born in Seattle and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in English and American literature. Formerly on the editorial staff of The New Yorker, she is the author of two previous nonfiction books, God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church and Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, both published by Henry Holt's Metropolitan Books. She has written for The New YorkerThe New York Review of BooksThe Atlantic MonthlyOutside Magazine, and The London Review of Books, among other publications. She has received a PEN Award for Best Young Writer and was a past recipient of the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writer's Residency, awarded by PEN Northwest. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband, Hal Espen.

Frances FitzGerald is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Bancroft Prize, and a prize from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the author of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape AmericaFire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam; America Revised: History School Books in the Twentieth Century; Cities on a Hill: A Journey through Contemporary American Cultures; Way Out in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War; and Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth. She has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and Esquire.

Joan Silber is the author of the story collection Fools, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and nominated for the PEN/Faulker Award. Her first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. She has published five other books of fiction, including Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, and The Size of the World, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction and one of the Seattle Times' 10 Best Books of Fiction. She's been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New Yorker, Agni, Ploughshares, Boulevard, and Epoch, among other publications. The beginning of Improvement was published in Tin House, nominated for an O. Henry Prize, and included in The Best American Short Stories 2015. Silber teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. 


The National Book Critics Circle, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, was founded in 1974 at New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel by a group of the most influential critics of the day, and awarded its first set of honors the following year. Comprising nearly 600 working critics and book-review editors throughout the country, the NBCC annually bestows its awards in six categories, honoring the best books published in the past year in the United States. It is considered one of the most prestigious awards in the publishing industry. The finalists for the NBCC awards are nominated, evaluated, and selected by the 24-member board of directors, which consists of critics and editors from some of the country’s leading print and online publications, as well as critics whose works appear in these publications. For more information about the history and activities of the National Book Critics Circle and to learn how to become a supporter, visit

Interview with John Leonard Prize Winner, Carmen Maria Machado

by Wynne Kontos | Mar-15-2018

For the past four years, the National Book Critics Circle has partnered with The New School’s MFA Creative Writing program, allowing the students to interview each of the NBCC Awards Finalists. In addition to building excitement for the Awards Finalist Reading and Ceremony held at the New School March 14th-15th, these interviews have built an intergenerational bridge between the writers of today and tomorrow.

This year, as part of the ongoing collaboration, and in support of the NBCC’s conversation about reading, criticism, and literature that extends from the local to the national, Brooklyn Magazine will publish and promote the interviews between NBCC Finalists and the current students of The New School.

Carmen Maria Machado’s writing considers the individual. Within her words the reader finds new questions—and answers are found sprinkled throughout the text, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

Recipient of the National Book Critic Circle Award’s John Leonard Prize for debut fiction, Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf), is a story collection rich in femininity, identity, uncovering trauma and independence. Machado’s sentences are lyrical, often poetic but never indirect. Her imagery is surprising, but in the same moment, intensely recognizable.

From her home in Philadelphia, Machado spoke with The New School MFA student, Wynne Kontos about grieving turkeys, the female experience and staying strong as a new writer.

Do you remember some of the earliest stories you ever wrote?
I wrote a lot of poems, very dramatic essays and short stories. Of course I use these terms very loosely. The one I remember most clearly is a book I wrote on my father’s stationery called, “The Biggest Turkey Can’t Find the Farm.” It’s about a turkey who’s lost and trying to get home. At the very end he gets to the farm, and the final page is a roast turkey on a plate that says, “I wish I did not come here.”

My parents were really disturbed, but I was very interested in this darkness. It’s weird when I look back at stories I wrote as a kid because I have the same interests. It’s all about death and illness and sadness—all the same things. I’m just a better writer now.

The stories in this collection have recognizable bits of our world, but often include a twist. What was it like workshopping pieces like this? Have you ever received pushback from peers or editors to more clearly define the ethereal aspects of your writing?
Mostly, no. The only time someone responded super negatively was when I workshopped “Especially Heinous.” One classmate loathed it and wrote me a very mean and angry letter. [Other than that] my workshop experience was really positive and I felt really supported with my projects.

What about in the publishing process?
I struggled to publish certain stories. For instance “Especially Heinous” took me a long time to sell. The biggest sort of obstacle I faced was that they were short stories. It wasn’t about world building, or experimentation. I’m really lucky I’ve been able to find a publisher, an agent and people who took a risk with my work.

What is some writing advice that you applied to this collection?
My beloved teacher Michelle Huneven, who was one of my teachers at Iowa, gave me a really hard time about my sentences. She was like, “Your sentences are almost good, but you’re getting lazy about them. You really need to sit on them—work on your sentences.” That became something I really kept in mind, and was on my mind as I was writing and editing.

How do you “sit on your sentences?”
I had to spend more time with them and not forget them. There were things I was sort of doing, that now I do all the time, like read my sentences out loud for example. Really thinking about each sentence and what it’s doing and not thinking of them as secondary. They become a really important way to get into a piece of writing.

So much of the female experience is rooted in mental or physical pain, and your writing captures that in such detail. In “Bad At Parties” a woman lives with the aftermath of physical trauma, in “The Husband Stitch” you write about childbirth and the sexualization of an episiotomy procedure. But then we have “Inventory” or “Eight Bites,” which begin with the lead character’s discomfort. While physical pain is often part of the female condition, there’s also the reality of just—discomfort, and your characters experience this too. From these types of pain or discomfort your characters often find strength rooted in their experiences. Can you talk more about why you’re compelled to explore these concepts in your work?
That’s a really good question. I feel like pain and suffering, whether it’s physical or not, is a sort of thing you have to work around. You won’t be able to get where you need to go. That place is very interesting for me as a writer, and that comes from my own life and feelings about being a woman in the world.

The novella in this collection, “Especially Heinous,” is 272 imagined synopses of Law and Order: SVU episodes. There were several moments of humor, but this piece also reminded me how discomfiting it is to admit I’m a long time viewer of this program. It’s a show that tries to draw attention to issues around sexual assault and abuse, but it’s still using those traumas to entertain us. Is this novella a commentary of any kind?
I think it’s a combination of a love letter to, and a critique of, a show I watch and have a lot of feelings about. The show itself is an interesting way to examine narratives about sexual assault and how they play out and how we consume them. It’s relevant to me that the only currently running Law and Order franchise is the rape one. But it has this real staying power that has outlived every other version.

I was recently re-watching some old episodes of Law and Order: SVU, and it’s so much better than the new stuff. The early SVU is actually pretty solid in a lot of ways, and I was kind of admiring how decent it was in an aesthetic sense. But [the novella is] a critique and a perfect lens to discuss this issue, it’s sort of weird how perfect it is. The novella gave me the space to talk about the things I feel strongly about which is the narrative of sexual violence and also what it feels like to binge watch something on Netflix.

A favorite part of this collection for me is the conversations with other women that it inspired. There’s something extraordinary about reading powerful work about women, but also something overwhelming about identifying these common experiences we share. Why do you think that is?
Everybody sort of knows that feeling of someone saying a thing and you think, “I thought I only felt that thing.” It’s this shock of being recognized and the intensity of realizing the shared experience is a highlight of the trauma. [It can] feel like it’s a lot of pieces have fallen into place and can be a very uncomfortable experience.

I think that’s the reason the story “Cat Person” went viral because it’s a sudden moment of common recognition of a very specific, very relatable scenario that felt very familiar to a lot of women—this very varied sort of trauma that’s hard to talk about it, which in that case is technical consent, when you just feel like you can’t be bothered, or you can’t say no because it’s too much of a hassle.

What does your ideal writing day look like?
I’m not at home. I’m somewhere in the wilderness, away from my whole life. I don’t write very well at home. I kind of need to be elsewhere. I write in my apartment or little coffee shops, but I prefer residencies.

When I’m at home, there’s always something to clean, always something to do. I want to wake up really early and have coffee, have a little bit of breakfast and just write until noon and then read or hike for the rest of the day and then go to bed super early. That’s my ideal writing day.

What can you tell us about your upcoming memoir, House in Indiana?
Because it is still very much a thing in flux, I can’t talk about it too much, but what I can say is it’s an experimentally structured memoir about physical abuse in same-sex relationships, trauma and narratives of trauma—and probably other stuff too.

What are some things you wished you’d known while you were in your MFA program?
I would’ve said, “Calm down it’s going to be okay.” I was figuring out who I was as an artist and was very anxious about performing in a certain way. The agents who visited Iowa would tell me, “It’s very hard to sell short stories! Call me when you have a novel!” I’d feel very dejected and despondent. [Other writers] were getting picked up left and right and I was sort of like sad George Michael from Arrested Development thinking, “I’m never going to get picked up, no one’s going to want me!”

Every teacher I had, even Lan Samantha Chang said, “just make good art, take the time, don’t get to overly worked up about the professional stuff, it’ll all work out. Just try to work on your work.” I always felt like, easy for you to say, famous writer!

But it’s true. All the other stuff will fall into place. I would try to get myself to be a little less anxious about the professional stuff, honestly. It’s fine and it all works out.

That’s lovely to hear. All writers can do it; we’re going to survive!
Yes! Just make good art, everything else will fall into place. But you’ve got to make good art.

Is there anything you feel would be good for emerging writers to know?
You don’t have to live in New York to be a writer. People always say that and I don’t think it’s true. You have to keep reading, because when you read a really good book, story or essay it’ll remind you why you want to be writing.

Photo Credit: Art Streiber

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