Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle


by Admin | Jan-22-2019

New York, NY (January 22, 2019)—Today the NBCC announced its 31 finalists in six categories––autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry––for the outstanding books of 2018. Of note: There are six finalists instead of five this year in autobiography, proving a strong year in the category. Also notable this year, the writer Terrance Hayes is a finalist in two categories for two separate books (in poetry for American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin and in criticism for To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight). Hayes has been a finalist in poetry twice before, for Lighthead (2010) and How to Be Drawn (2015). The winners of three additional prizes (The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, The John Leonard Prize and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing) were also announced. The National Book Critics Circle Awards, begun in 1974 and considered among the most prestigious in American letters, are the sole prizes bestowed by a jury of working critics and book-review editors.

The awards will be presented on March 14, 2019 at the New School in New York City. The ceremony is free and open to the public. A reading by the finalists will take place the evening before the awards, on March 13, also at the New School. The NBCC hosts a fundraising reception following the awards on March 14. The tickets, $50 for NBCC members when purchased in advance and $75 to the general public, benefit the NBCC, the awards, and the work that the NBCC does year round to promote books, critics, and writers nationwide.

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award is Arte Público Press.

Tommy Orange, author of There There, is the recipient of the fifth annual John Leonard Prize, established to recognize outstanding first books in any genre and named in honor of founding NBCC member John Leonard. Finalists for the prize are nominated by more than 600 voting NBCC members nationwide, and the recipient is decided by a volunteer committee of NBCC members.

The recipient of the 2018 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing is Maureen Corrigan. The Balakian Citation is open to all NBCC members, who submit recent reviews to the 24-person board, which votes on the recipient. The Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, endowed by NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.

Here is the complete list of NBCC Award finalists for the publishing year 2018:



Richard Beard, The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story (Little, Brown)

Nicole Chung, All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir (Catapult)

Rigoberto Gonzalez, What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood (University of Wisconsin Press)

Nora Krug, Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home (Scribner)

Nell Painter, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint)

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir (Random House)



Christopher Bonanos, Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous (Henry Holt & Company)

Craig Brown, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Yunte Huang, Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History (Liveright)

Mark Lamster, The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century (Little, Brown)

Jane Leavy, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created (Harper/HarperCollins)



Robert Christgau, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 (Duke University Press)

Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (W.W. Norton)

Terrance Hayes, To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight (Wave)

Lacy M. Johnson, The Reckonings: Essays (Scribner)

Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays (Penguin Press)



Anna Burns, Milkman (Graywolf Press)

Patrick Chamoiseau, Slave Old Man. Translated by Linda Coverdale (The New Press)

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Random House)

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Scribner)

Luis Alberto Urrea, The House of Broken Angels (Little, Brown)



Francisco Cantú, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Riverhead Books)

Steve Coll, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Penguin Press)

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin Press)

Adam Winkler, We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights (Liveright)

Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State (Knopf)



Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Books)

Ada Limón, The Carrying (Milkweed)

Erika Meitner, Holy Moly Carry Me (Boa)

Diane Seuss, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press)

Adam Zagajewski, Asymmetry. Translated by Clare Cavanagh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)



Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

Her book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures was published by Little, Brown in September 2014. Corrigan's literary memoir, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading! was published in 2005. Corrigan is also a reviewer and columnist for The Washington Post's Book World, and has served on the advisory panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.

Balakian Finalists

David Biespiel

Julia Klein

Becca Rothfeld

Wendy Smith



Tommy Orange, There There (Knopf)

Tommy Orange is a graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Oakland, California.

John Leonard Finalists

Nana Kwami Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black (Mariner)

Jamel Brinkley, A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press)

Francisco Cantú, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Riverhead)

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry: A Novel (Simon and Schuster)

R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries (Riverhead)

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir (Random House)



Arte Público Press

Arte Público Press is the oldest and largest publisher of Hispanic literature in the United States. Founded 40 years ago by Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, and currently based in Houston, Texas, Arte Público publishes dozens of books by Latino writers each year in both English and Spanish, including titles under its children’s literature imprint, Piñata Books. In 1992,  Arte Público began its Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, which seeks to recover and publish lost texts from Latino writers from colonial times to the mid-20th century. Arte Público was he original publisher of Sandra Cisneros’ legendary novel The House on Mango Streett. Other authors published by Arte Público have included Helena María Viramontes, John Rechy, Ana Castillo and Luis Valdez. Arte Público’s determination to build bridges, not walls, has immeasurably enriched American literature and culture.


Winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 14, 2018 at 6:30 p.m. at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, 66 W. 12th St, New York, NY. A finalists’ reading will be held on March 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the same location. Both events are free and open to the public. The NBCC hosts a fundraising reception following the awards on March 14. The tickets, $50 for NBCC members when purchased in advance and $75 to the general public, benefit the NBCC, the awards, and the work that the NBCC does year round to promote books, critics, and writers nationwide.



The National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974 at New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel by a group of the most influential critics of the day. Comprising 750 working critics and book-review editors throughout the country, including student members and supporting Friends of the NBCC, the organization 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 editors and critics from the country’s leading print and online publications. For more information about the history and activities of the National Book Critics Circle and to learn how to become a member or supporter, visit Follo.w National Book Critics Circle on Facebook and on Twitter (@bookcritics).

NBCC Reads: J. Howard Rosier on Edmund Wilson’s ‘Axel’s Castle’

by J. Howard Rosier | Jan-16-2019

What are your favorite books about books? Why are these books such a ferocious pleasure? Maybe it's their range: books on books can combine memoir and criticism (see Rebecca Mead's 'My Life in Middlemarch' or Janet Malcolm's 'Reading Chekhov'), history and sociology (Alberto Manguel's 'A History of Reading'), humor, travelogue, astute observation, and who knows what else (Elif Batuman's 'The Possessed'). Tell us about your favorite for the latest installment of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees  and is curated by Alan Cheuse Emerging Critic Natalia Holtzman. (The series dates back to 2007; you can explore the archive here.) Submissions can be 500 words or fewer and should go to





From advocating for more inclusive discussions, to letting a reader know whether or not a book is worth the money, criticism has a multitude of functions. One of the most important, though, is making sense of a book for casual readers. It's with this in mind that—gun to my head—I'd pick Axel's Castle by Edmund Wilson as my favorite book about reading.

By the end of his life, Wilson had tons of achievements under his belt. He was the first literary editor of the New Republic. His scheme, of an American equivalent to the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, blossomed into the Library of America. But his legacy rests on this book-length survey that demystified Modernism, whose highest achievements were still up for debate at the time of the book’s publication (1931).

To Wilson, the changes in sensibility taking place weren’t a movement so much as a tension between historical tendencies: the Enlightenment’s ration-based concreteness, and Romanticism’s deeply felt embellishments. In Wilson’s reading, Romantic literature was a revolt from “Classicism”—too fixated on mechanical order, and precise to the point at which what was accurate no longer felt “real.” Though the genre of realism sprang from this inclination (Flaubert and Ibsen get high marks), literature had yet to find a method of ascribing sensory experience to feelings.

The point at which these two poles collide is Edgar Allen Poe, whose refined rendering of psychological dread was utterly refreshing to a French readership still ensconced in the age of reason. Remarkably, it wasn’t Poe’s poetry that flipped the switch; his criticism, “to which no one seems to have paid much attention elsewhere,” was studied and expanded upon by a literary culture “reasoned” over “far more than English.” This elaboration gained importance as W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein began their expatriate stints; and as Paul Valery and Marcel Proust began innovating French metre and prose style.

Much of the book’s strength lies in Wilson’s cool, detached tone. He wasn’t trying to be a cheerleader; rather, to contextualize trends in literature that were baffling readers. Many of the techniques employed in The Waste Land, In Search of Lost Time, and Three Lives were just as maddening to Wilson as they were to his counterparts. The difference is that he didn’t get bogged down by the works in isolation. Axel’s Castle is a book about the implications of things—how encountering a new aesthetic can shift the gravity of what is acceptable decades down the line. The smallest changes can have seismic consequences, and by blowing up the mechanics of a small group of writers to several times beyond scale, Wilson enables us to recognize literature as a game of inches.

Thus, the greatest innovation in Ulysses, where its author removes the intermediary between internal and external reality, is so engrossing that it distracts readers from what is supposed to be a parody of the Odyssey. The drama of Eliot’s poetic line, confusing to readers who haven’t engaged with the texts he cross-cuts, is bolstered by his insistence on enveloping his references in music. And though “we may regret the spoiled child in Proust…[born] of rich parents, who has never had to meet the world on equal terms,” we’re unable to look away from a first-rate imagination “recreat[ing] the world of the novel from the point of view of relativity.” Few books written in the 1930s can claim to be the last word on anything, but of the six writers warranting full chapters, Axel’s Castle nails at least four. (Along with Eliot, Joyce, and Proust, the chapter on Yeats does much to explain the poet producing his best work in old age.) Rigorous close reading, paired with clear-eyed historical perspective, allows Wilson’s subjects the dignity of being taken seriously.

And yet there's never a point where he crosses the line into confusing data with clairvoyance. Armed with all this research, it'd be easy to render definitive judgments on an author's worth, but Wilson never portends to know where anyone’s career is going. Instead, he opts to view writing and, by extension, literature, as an imperfect act riddled with pure potential. Progress is impossible without signs of life, after all.

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