Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

Critical Notes: AWP15 in Minneapolis, Awards Recap, Latest Member Reviews, and More

by Carmela Ciuraru | Mar-23-2015

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Join the NBCC at AWP15's featured reading (April 9th, 4:30 pm) with Jayne Anne Phillips, Lily King and Anthony Marra:

Revisiting the 2015 NBCC awards:

Toni Morrison on the power of book critics.

Video of the NBCC finalists' reading.

Video of the NBCC awards ceremony.

Rita Dove's homage to Toni Morrison.

Announcement of NBCC awards recipients.

Alexandra Schwartz on winning the Balakian award.

Phil Klay on winning the John Leonard Prize.

*Member reviews:

NBCC President Tom Beer on the latest memoirs in Newsday. 

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari on NPR's Weekend Edition talking about poet Jill Alexander Essbaum's first novel, Hausfrau. Julia M. Klein's review of Hausfrau for the Chicago Tribune. Klein also reviews Barney Frank's political memoir for the Boston Globe.

Joan Gelfand on Carol Smallwood's poetry collection.

Chuck Twardy reviews Kazuo Ishiguro. So does Angie Jabine.

Grace Schulman on Marilyn Hacker in Kenyon Review.

Terry Hong reviews The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot in the Christian Science Monitor. 

NBCC board member David Biespiel in The Rumpus.

Jim Ruland reviews Barry Gifford in the Los Angeles Times.

Dan Cryer on The Last Word, by Hanif Kureishi.

NBCC board member Joanna Scutts reviews Jacob Silverman's "Terms of Service" and 'The Battle of Versailles,' by Robin Givhan.

NBCC board member Carmela Ciuraru on Find Me, by Laura van den Berg, in the New York Times.

Michael Magras on The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips.

David Duhr on Keija Parssinen's The Unraveling of Mercy Louis for the Dallas Morning News.

Michelle Newby reviews Crepuscule W/ Nellie by Joe Milazzo for The Collagist and Elizabeth Harris's Mayhem for Lone Star Literary Life.

2013 Balakian winner and new NBCC board member Katherine A. Powers reviews Elliott Ackerman's Green on Blue and John Boyne's A History of Loneliness.

Andrew Cleary on Jacob Silverman's Terms of Service in the Christian Science Monitor.

Robert Birnbaum interviews Anthony Doerr. 

Chris Barsanti on Richard Price's "The Whites" for PopMatters.

Larry Smith on Jane Hirshfield.

James Gibbons on Fred Moten.

Gerald Bartell on Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

‘A Wild Faculty of Sorts’: Toni Morrison on the Power of Book Critics

by Toni Morrison | Mar-19-2015

On Thursday, March 12, Toni Morrison accepted the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof award for lifetime achievement. She mesmerized the packed house with her presence. Here is the text of her remarks; video is here. And Rita Dove's introduction is here.

The founding of NBCC in the early seventies was a singular idea.  The collective intelligence of John Leonard, Ivan Sandrof and Nona Balakian was not merely unique, it was welcome and it was needed.  A wild faculty, of sorts, dedicated to books and their scrutiny. Passionate, eager to laud and reward the best.

As the years passed this organization became more than unique; it became necessary. Publishing and writers were expanding, facing new challenges of distribution and finance. And in the mix of those challenges more astute and wide-ranging criticism fortunately surfaced.

Finally, now the National Book Critics Circle is far more than unique or necessary.  It is urgent.  The publishing world is in even more flux, facing new modes of distribution; bookstores disappear; companies merge to avoid collapse.

I am delighted and honored to join the long and distinguished list of authors and accept this Lifetime Award.  It means a lot to me.  When I published my first novel, the reception was slight, indifferent, even hostile.  I remember being chided for writing "just to avoid cliché."  I thought that was a compliment, but apparently not.  Whatever the point, the novel was not taken seriously—until, that is, John Leonard read it and took it very seriously indeed.  It wasn't about whether he liked "The Bluest Eye"; it was that he gave it his best judgment on the book's literary merit.  I will always be grateful to him for that.

I'm unclear what the category was, in 1972—Afro American, Black, African American—but I do remember books written by black writers were given their own shelves in bookstores, just like women's books and detective stories.  It was unlikely for my book to be shelved alphabetically.  Which is not to say authors objected to that convenience or that customers did not appreciate it; it is to say the same separation existed in the criticism.  Those were the days when a book of poetry by a Black writer; a novel by a black writer and a collection of essays by another black writer were reviewed together in one article, and the reviewer (white) could and did decide which among those three separate genres was the best.  I recall during my days at Random House choosing to schedule books by black writers in separate seasons, simply to avoid the cluster.  All or almost all of that has changed now.  Angela Davis' autobiography is no longer compared to Gayl Jones' novel "Corregidora."  Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories is not paired with Huey Newton's essays "To Die For the People." And, happily, Muhammed Ali's autobiography is not evaluated or measured against "Soledad Brother," or George Jackson's "Blood in My Eye."  James Baldwin is not paired with August Wilson.

Much of that conflation and the mixing of genres according to race has disappeared, a disappearance primarily due to the labors of literary critics in this organization.  

The National Book Critics Circle has grown and eagerly faces the challenges and opportunities of contemporary publishing.  Online books, blogs, self-publishing, e-books, new and small presses, shuttered bookstores and a general move of the newspaper industries preference to light entertainment and gossip.  Yet these changes do not deter the National Book Critics Circle's agenda—in fact, it works to confront, alter and expand the possibilities of publishing, the training of young writers and working with other literary communities.

The list of authors who have been awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Award is judicious and enviable—I am delighted to be among them.

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Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to Make sure to