March, 2017

Critical Notes: Super-Sized NBCC Awards and Catch-up Edition

by Jane Ciabattari | Mar-29-2017

Here is the news rundown on the National Book Critics Circle awards:

Critical Mass.

Video of awards ceremony.
Associated Press.

New York Times.

Washington Post.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Los Angeles Times.

Miami Herald.

Tampa Bay Times. (And here.)

PW Daily.

Shelf Awareness

Publishers Lunch.


Lit Hub.

Library Journal.

Parnassus Books blog (Ann Patchett).

Emory News.



Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Michelle Dean remarks on Critical Mass and The New Republic.  

Margaret Atwood remarks on Critical Mass and Lit Hub.

Yaa Gyasi remarks on Critical Mass. Interviewed by Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Laurie Hertzel.

Newly elected NBCC president Kate Tuttle reviews Marina Benjamin's The Middlepause for the Los Angeles Times.

Michael Lindgren's review of all the NBCC criticism finalists for the Washington Post.

Former NBCC board member Rigoberto Gonzalez writes about the bittersweet experience of being a professional of color for the Los Angeles Times.

NBCC Balakian winner and current board member Katherine A. Powers picks the best audiobooks for March for the Washington Post.

Priscilla Gilman reviews NBCC criticism finalist Elif Batuman's first novel, The Idiot, for the Boston Globe.

Creative Writing MFA New School student, Kelly Stewart, interviews New School alum and NBCC Board member, Kerri Arsenault, about her forthcoming book, What Remains.H

Helene Cardona reviews Ghost/Landscape by Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher in the Colorado Review. Salmon Poetry will publish Next year Salmon Poetry will publish The Birnam Wood, her translation of El bosque de Birnam (Consell Insular d'Eivissa, 2008) by her father José Manuel Cardona, in a bilingual edition. And Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016) was a finalist for the Julie Suk Award for the best poetry collection published by an independent press in 2016.

Minneapolis Star Tribune books editor (and NBCC board member) Laurie Hertzel writes about the secret joys of reading aloud. She also reviews Jess Kidd's  Himself for the Star-Tribune and wrote about the “poetry coalition” and a plan to give away poems at Twin Cities bookstores.

Former board member and Balakian winner Steve Kellman reviews Mohsin Hamid's Exit West for the Dallas News.

Former NBCC board member Katharine Weber reviews Hari Kunzru's White Tears for the Washington Post.

Lisa Spaar's most recent  Second Acts installment for the Los Angeles Review of Books pairs second books by Rosanna Warren and Melissa Range.

Just departed NBCC board member David Biespiel notes that many people are calling for a political poetry of social engagement. In his column for The Rumpus, he offers a different take: the political as personal.

Michael Berry reviews John Darnielle's International Harvester for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Julia M. Klein reviews Joselin Linder's The Family Gene and Niki Kapsambelis's The Inheritance for the Chicago Tribune. She also reviews Wendy Lesser's You Say to Brick  and Peter Hayes' Why? for the Forward.

For Inside Higher education, John Domini reviews memoirs by Peter Selgin and Scott Abbott, both "sensitive about the strange shapes that passion can take:” In Brooklyn Rail, Domini hails Mary Troy’s new novel for it’s “gallows humor” and “rueful sympathy:” In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Domini praises a memoir of life as an illegal immigrant by a Mexican “gonzo journalist.”

Michael Magras reviews Last Day On Earth: Stories by Eric Puchner for the Houston Chronicle.

Grace Lichtenstein reviews High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel in the New York Journal of Books.

Joan Silverman reviews Ron Currie's The One-Eyed Man for the Portland Press-Herald.

Lanie Tankard reviews A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming on Women's Memoirs and a debut noir novel, Graveyard of the Gods by Richard Fleming.

Joe Peschel reviews Kevin Canty's novel The 'Underworld': Gritty Life and Death in a Mining Town in the Houston Chronicle.

Chuck Greaves reviews Hannah Tinti's The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley for the Four Corners Free Press.

C.M. Mayo, a native of El Paso, was recently elected to the Texas Institute of Letters.

Andrew Hazlett reviews The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History, by Thomas Harding (Picador) in the February 2017 issue of Reason Magazine.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras, the new columnist for Book Spine, KQED's column about books, reviews Melissa Febos' Abandon Me, 

Kai Maristed reviews Peter Handke's The Moravian Night for Boston's Artfuse.

Rebecca Kightlinger reviews Ashley Mace Havird's debut novel Lightningstruck for Historical Novels Review.

South and West: From a Notebook  by Joan Didion, reviewed by Ann Fabian in The National Book Review. Paul Wilner also reviews the Didion, for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Philip Graham's recent essay for The Millions, “Stuck Inside of Stockholm with the Nobel Blues Again,” examines the possible reasons behind Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Frank Freeman reviews C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law  and Alica Kaplan's Looking for the Stranger for University Bookman.

Photo credit: John Midgley

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Jane Ciabattari is a former president and current vice president/online of the National Book Critics Circle. She is a columnist for and Lit Hub, and contributes regularly to and others. She serves on the advisory board of The Story Prize and is a member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She is the author of two story collections, Stealing the Fire and California Tales. She can be found on Twitter @janeciab.

Balakian Winner Michelle Dean Reviews #1: “Robert Lowell’s Tainted Love”

by Michelle Dean | Mar-22-2017

Robert Lowell had been dead seven years when The Paris Review interviewed Elizabeth Hardwick, the novelist, critic, and his second-to-last wife. In the conversation, she admitted that “Cal,” as everyone called Lowell—a boarding school nickname that stuck—sometimes thought her critical work “snippy” but:

He liked women writers and I don’t think he ever had a true interest in a woman who wasn’t a writer—an odd turn-on indeed, and one I’ve noticed not greatly shared. Women writers don’t tend to be passive vessels or wives, saying, “Oh, that’s good, dear.” 

Probably no one had more justification to complain about Lowell in print than Hardwick did. Though they were married for 23 years, their union was worn down by Lowell’s nearly annual hospitalizations for manic depression, his endless philandering, and his alcoholism. At the end of it, almost on a whim, he left her for the writer and “muse”—always a loaded term, that—Lady Caroline Blackwood. Then he took Hardwick’s alternately furious and anguished letters to him and folded them, without her consent, into a full-length book of poetry, The Dolphin. This artifact of her humiliation won a Pulitzer. Yet Hardwick still continued to try to get him back, right up to the day of his death.

This all provides pretty good copy, as they like to say, for Jeffrey Meyers’s new book, Robert Lowell in Love, a detailed accounting of the women Lowell pursued and lived and conversed with. Hardwick was the second wife of three. The first had been Jean Stafford, a writer now chiefly remembered for her caustic, hilarious short stories, many of which fictionalize the events of this disastrous relationship. Before the figurative banns were even issued, a drunken Lowell got them into a car accident that left Stafford permanently disfigured. Their subsequent wedded bliss was marked by mutual alcoholism, a punch in the face that broke Stafford’s nose once again, and four months in prison for Lowell, who claimed conscientious objector status in World War II.

But while Meyers presents what is clearly a considerable amount of research—in an appendix he sets out all his work tracking down mistress after mistress—he misrepresents the texture of Lowell’s relationship with Hardwick in particular, and with women more generally. Lowell, the reader learns, is a “hunk” with a “harem” of female devotees. Meyers titles the chapter chronicling the experiences of Lowell’s mistresses as “The Heedless Heart,” apparently unironically. He rhapsodizes at every opportunity about “the prestige and power that came with being Mrs. Robert Lowell”—a concern that he clearly feels was the chief engine of Hardwick’s affection for her husband.

This is unfortunate, and not just as regards historical accuracy. We live in a time of abnormally loud complaint about Men Who Explain Things in the literary world. These arrogant men who ignore and denigrate the work of women are discussed and analyzed, again and again, to the point where it has felt, recently, like there is no other kind of male writer. But Lowell was never like that. Yes, he cheated, he cracked up, he was irresponsible and even cruel in the way he marshaled his life for his art. Lowell nonetheless believed that women were his intellectual and artistic equals. He spent most of his life behaving accordingly even as he treated his wives and mistresses so terribly, in romantic terms, that it was almost operatic. That is the puzzle of Lowell and women.

Another sort of book should be written on Lowell and the women in his life. It would not spend as much time on the mother and the wives as Meyers’s does, but would be forced to reckon with Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop and Lowell were both tortured people, occasionally suicidal, and seasoned alcoholics. But they met through their work, and their relationship was primarily intellectual and epistolary. The correspondence between them was published in 2008 as Words in Air, which is among a certain sort of reader a talismanic book. They advised each other on their poems; they discussed the greats of their time (Marianne Moore, John Berryman) and of the past (Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins). The book has the magic quality that poets’ letters often have—the ratio of meaning to language is high, which gives their observations, flirtations, and arguments a near-cinematic quality. The playwright Sarah Ruhl loved them so much she turned them into a play, Dear Elizabeth.

Meyers gives the whole Lowell-Bishop friendship just a few pages, which is difficult to justify even in a book restricted to Lowell’s “loves.” Not least because Lowell was, at one time, in love with Bishop. He said so himself. The correspondence reaches a romantic crescendo early on, when Lowell in a letter dated August 15, 1957 admits to Bishop that he’d once wanted to marry her, and in fact had assumed they would marry. Things had almost come to a head in the summer of 1948 when they were sitting on a rock, looking out at the ocean from the coast of Maine. “When you write my epitaph,” Bishop told him then, “you must say I am the loneliest person that ever lived.” This was the moment, he confessed in the letter, that he’d fixed upon marrying her. But other events had intervened, and he never asked—which did not mean he forgot about it or stopped justifying it to himself. “I do think free will is sewn into everything we do,” he reasoned:

You can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. … I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would have improved. … But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.

Lowell hinted that he’d written this while in a manic state: “The last part is too heatedly written with too many ‘and’s and so forth.” He was also aware that Bishop was gay and, by the time he wrote this letter, living with her lover in Brazil. It was a confession of love made with no hope of reciprocation.

Bishop did not reply—or at least not directly. But clearly she knew what he was talking about and details of the incident made their way into their common language. In another letter many years later, she’d correct a few facts, which Lowell had written up in a poem he called “Water”:

Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler

She also sent him a postcard of Winslow Homer’s Marblehead, which, as Colm Tóibín pointed out in his review of the letters in 2009, depicts two people talking on a coastal rock. This romantic image recurred in their writings.

As Hardwick well knew, Bishop was not a passive vessel for Lowell either. When he sent Bishop the poems he intended to fashion into The Dolphin, she wrote back in carefully measured horror. Because so much of his poetry had used the words of friends and family, Lowell appears to have thought that using Hardwick’s letters to him was merely an extension of his usual practice. “One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust?” she asked. “If you were given permission—if you hadn’t changed them… etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.”

It speaks to Lowell’s profound respect for Bishop that he did, on her advice, actually alter the poems. But he published them nonetheless, still containing some passages from Hardwick’s letters. The Dolphin also includes passages that Lowell actually invented but presents to the reader as hers, like this one, in which she appears eloquent even in a histrionic mode:

You can’t carry your talent with you like a suitcase.
Don’t you dare mail us the love your life denies;
do you really know what you have done?

Meyers seems mostly untroubled by The Dolphin. He has little sympathy for Hardwick to begin with, though he dutifully catalogs her suffering before noting that the episode made Hardwick a “famously betrayed woman and (like Sylvia Plath) a feminist icon.” Then, apparently to demonstrate Lowell’s good faith, Meyers points to the last line of the book: “My eyes have seen what my hand did” and characterizes them as “seething with self-accusation and remorse.”

Perhaps, indeed, that was Lowell’s conscience surfacing about the suffering he had left behind him. It is clear that Lowell had “seen” the damage he’d done to Hardwick’s life, and to his daughter’s. He may, at certain points, have been self-critical about it. But at the time he actually published The Dolphin he did not seem to feel particularly bad about it. To Bishop, he replied that he didn’t think using the letters was slanderous, and that his use of Hardwick’s actual words was “the poignance of the book, tho that hardly makes it kinder to her.” Lowell continued, “It’s oddly enough a technical problem as well as a gentleman’s problem.” His remorse, as performed in the poem, can’t quite negate the coolness with which he decided to go forward, anyway. He had decided, despite Bishop’s warning, that art was worth that much.

The person who ended up taking him to task for it most publicly was another woman poet friend: Adrienne Rich. She had written to him, when he first left Hardwick for Blackwood, to complain that his decisions were based in “sexual romanticism.” Then when The Dolphin came out, she wrote searingly of it in the American Poetry Review:

What does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names, and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife? … I think this bullshit eloquence a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book. 

Meyers characterizes this moment as the break between Lowell and Rich; in fact, their friendship had been dissolving for some time at that point. In 1973, when The Dolphin appeared, Rich had long been blooming into the radical feminist politics that would dominate the second half of her career; Lowell, like most of her friends, disliked the turn in her writing.

He nonetheless felt the break keenly. In response to the review, Lowell sent a letter to its editor sadly noting that Rich had once been one of his closest friends. He could not resist, even in criticism, half complimenting her work: 

I could say she has become a famous person by becoming cheap and inflamed; but that isn’t it. Her whole career had been a rage for disorder, a heroic desire to destroy her early precocity for form and modesty. And wasn’t she right? And wasn’t she unrecognized mostly when she first became a better poet and before the time of her fevers? And who knows how the thing will turn out—such a mixture of courage and the auctioneer now? 

The nominal respect he gives Rich here is interesting, this odd “turn-on” of the intelligence of women writers a curious aspect of the man indeed. I suspect it gives us the clearest answer to why, in spite of all his terrible behavior, Lowell was irresistible to so many talented, intelligent women. He was, much of the time, really listening to them. That this was possible in the midst of so much insensitivity and philandering suggests truly vast possibilities about communication across the gender fault lines. If only someone would write a book about it.


This review of Robert Lowell in Love by Jeffrey Meyers, part of Michelle Dean's submission that won this year's Balakian award for excellence in criticism,  appeared in the February 4, 2016 issue of the New Republic.
Author photo by John Midgley

Michelle Dean is a contributing editor at The New Republic and author of the forthcoming book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

John Leonard Winner: ‘I am grateful for the sacrifices my parents made…’

by Yaa Gyasi | Mar-21-2017

I’m so grateful to be here celebrating with all of you tonight.  Thank you to the National Book Critics Circle for this tremendous honor. Thank you also to Sue Leonard and to the late John Leonard for championing new writers.  What a privilege it is to be recognized for the John Leonard award tonight.

I’d also like to thank my brilliant editor, Jordan Pavlin, my firecracker of a publicist Josie McGehee, and my endlessly encouraging agent Eric Simonoff, all of whom believed in this book so very fiercely.  

Another thank you goes to Matthew Nelson-Teutsch for his exquisite partnership.  

Finally, I’d like to thank my family, especially my parents Kwaku and Sophia Gyasi who came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs and the children in their arms. In a time where it feels like every day immigrants and refugees are being met with new affronts to their humanity, I am even more grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made so that I could one day stand here before all of you and accept this award.


All 2016 NBCC award winners here.

View video of NBCC awards ceremony here.

Photo credit: John Midgley   

Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (Alfred A. Knopf), an ambitious novel that spans continents and centuries to wrap its arms around the African-American experience of slavery, was the recipient of the John Leonard Prize, recognizing an outstanding first book in any genre. Gyasi was born in Ghana and grew up partly in Alabama. She has an English degree from Stanford, an MFA from the University of Iowa, and now lives in New York.

Sandrof Award Winner Margaret Atwood:‘What You Do as Critics Is Sorely Needed’

by Margaret Atwood | Mar-20-2017

I am deeply honoured to have been given the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. You have placed me  among some very august names indeed, and I am somewhat in awe.

I would also like to say how important it is that you  -- as book critics – are doing what you do. I’m an author of fiction and poetry, true, but I have also put in some time as a book critic, and I have to say it’s about the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer. A review of another author’s work carries a heavy responsibility, because you can’t – unfortunately – just make stuff up. Fiction’s task is to be plausible, but criticism’s task is to be accurate in fact, generous in appraisal, and considered in judgment. A real book is at stake, with a real person attached at the other end – most of the time – and every author knows how much work and anxiety have gone into a book – any book.

Being Canadian – and therefore much given to the puncturing of balloons – I have sometimes had to tie my hands to the chair to avoid silly puns and bad-taste jokes at the author’s expense. It can be a struggle for me, and I haven’t always won it. Added to which, book criticism is a thankless task. Authors are sensitive beings; therefore, all positive adjectives applied to them will be forgotten, yet anything even faintly smacking of imperfection in their work will rankle until the end of time. “Accomplished?” one writer raged at me. “Don’t you know that “accomplished” is an insult?” (I didn’t know.)

Then there was that period in the early seventies – thus, early second-wave feminism -- when I was given nothing but books by women to review. Why was this? Fear on the part of men that they would be reprimanded for not getting it right? Or the shoving-off upon one of the second sex works by others of this group that were considered not weighty enough? Who can tell?

But time passed, and I was allowed to review men once more. It helps if they’re dead – they can’t get back at you – but I’ve reviewed some living ones, too. Why do I attempt such a painful task? For the same reason I give blood: we must all do our part, because if nobody contributes to this worthy enterprise, then there won’t be any just when it is most needed. Blood, or book reviews. Or both, in the same package.

And right now, what you do as critics is sorely needed. Never has American democracy felt so challenged. Never have there been so many attempts—from so many sides of the political spectrum – to shout down the voices of others, to obfuscate and confuse, to twist and manipulate, and to vilify reliable and trusted publications. A dictatorship aims for three things in order to consolidate its power: first, to erase the independent judiciary and its law enforcement agencies; second, to control the army, which ought to be defending the people, and make it instead an arm of the dictatorship; and third, to shut down independent media outlets and thus mute all opinions but its own.

As independent critics, you are part of the barrier standing between authoritarian control and a pluralistic and open democracy. That barrier is always fragile, but at some times more than at others. Keep at your craft and sometimes sullen art, to misquote Dylan Thomas, Persist, despite the hazards. Readers everywhere will be grateful to you. Well, not everywhere – because there are still places on this planet where to be caught reading you – or even me – would incur a severe penalty. I hope there will soon be fewer such places. (Though don’t hold your breath.)          

But I will cherish this Lifetime Achievement award from you – though, like all sublunar blessings, it is a mixed one. Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did the lifetime go?


Video of NBCC awards ceremony here.

All NBCC 2016 award winners here.

photo credit: John Midgley

Margaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, story writer, essayist, and environmental activist. She is the author of some 16 novels, eight collections of short stories, eight children’s books, 17 volumes of poetry, 10 collections of nonfiction, as well as small press editions, television and radio scripts, plays, recordings, and editions. Her lifetime contribution to letters and book culture include groundbreaking fiction, environmental and feminist activism, and service to community as a co-founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada.

Video: NBCC 2016 Awards Ceremony

by admin | Mar-20-2017

Video by Zachary Auron

In Order of Appearance

Welcome: Luis Jaramillo, Director, The New School Writing Program

Opening Remarks: Tom Beer, President, National Book Critics Circle

The John Leonard Prize: Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (Alfred A. Knopf)

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing: Michelle Dean

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Margaret Atwood

Poetry: Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons

Criticism: Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

Autobiography: Hope Jahren, Lab Girl 

Biography: Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life 

Nonfiction: Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City 

Fiction: Louise Erdrich, LaRose

Balakian Winner to Writers: ‘Pay Attention’

by Michelle Dean | Mar-18-2017

Well, thank you to the NBCC for letting me get up here and speak tonight. I’m very glad to be in this company. I think I am expected to say something about criticism, but I’ve never been big on what I think of as capital-C claims about criticism. And anyway, I reject this whole business of drawing a line between “writing” and “criticism.” No good critic I know of – not Dorothy Parker, not Susan Sontag, not Janet Malcolm – thought of herself as a “critic” as opposed to a “writer.”

So I want to say a little something about writing instead.

Not too long ago I saw, on the internet, a photograph of a very small baby raccoon sitting on a road. And the caption read: “when u realize u dont want 2 be responsible for anything anymore & u just want 2 nap and be small.”

I have deliberately arranged my life so that I see pictures of cute animals on the internet every day. But I’m not usually seized by them the way I was by this one. The desire to abdicate, to give up: for me, that’s primal. Like anyone else alive right now, I spend a lot of days fighting off a flight response.

There is so much going on. Every day brings fresh fear and fresh outrage. And though we have all these tiny little outlets of action in our lives, the internet posts and the petitions and the marches, no single one of them can fix this.

The world is on the verge of something, and one way to look at it is that we are climbing up the arc of the moral universe. But from our present vantage, it’s very hard to see if it’s bending towards justice the way Martin Luther King said.

It’s natural to want to look away. I want to look away. For the last few years, we all have. This brave new world of ours, after all, it started long before November 8th. The struggle we presently find ourselves in is not a mistake and not a fluke. As Hannah Arendt would have told us if she were around, it came from something that has been simmering for years. It was not a Big Bang. It crept into our lives, while we were napping.

Power sometimes works that way. Still, I wish we hadn’t missed it.

As I thought about this, a few weeks ago, I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time since I was assigned it as a Canadian high school student. You know all the jokes about that book approaching nonfiction now. You don’t need me to make another one. But reading it what I thought about was mostly this: There are so few books being published like this, now. The application of literary intelligence to this question of power, it’s out of style.

Many writers now are more interested in exploring the self. Power might be present in their books but it’s usually not the abiding preoccupation. And look: to borrow a phrase from one of Sontag’s speeches, I would never ask a writer to be a jukebox. But there is a kind of looking away going on by a lot of writers who should know better, I’m saying. And I’m troubled by it.

Yes, by design, writers live their lives in what David Foster Wallace called “our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We are, so very often, alone. It doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of getting up, and looking around.

I’m just as skeptical of big-L claims about literature as I am big-C claims about criticism, but I do think there is a bottom line to writing: What a writer is supposed to do is pay attention. A good novelist pays attention to his characters. A good biographer pays attention to the documents before her. A good critic pays close attention to the thing she’s brought to evaluate.

Paying attention is the only thing that guarantees insight. It is the only real weapon we have against power, too. You can’t fight things you can’t actually see.

The power a writer has is the power to make things visible, and they are the things that we don’t typically look at or think about. Telling a story about someone has enormous power. People forget a headline. They remember a story.

Here is a story I think about a lot: In my other writing life as a journalist, I met this young woman last year who had been hiding in plain sight for most of her life. Her name is Gypsy. For her whole life, her mother had insisted that she was incredibly sick. And then one day she realized: her mother was lying. With the lies, too, the mother had trapped them both in a fraud. Gypsy tried to get away, but her mother physically wouldn’t let go. So Gypsy found a young man on the internet, fell in love with him and after Gypsy asked him to, he killed her mother. And now Gypsy is in prison, trying to figure out who she is in the aftermath of all this.

At the same time as I was reporting Gypsy’s story, I happened to be given a book to review. It was a big brick of a novel about a man, clearly the author’s alter ego, who felt trapped in his bourgeois existence. And I’ll say here just as I said in print: I did not like this novel. But I know that one of the reasons I disliked it so was the novelist’s palpable incuriosity about actual suffering in the world. He just had no idea. And my dislike bloomed into pretty damning rhetoric, as it happened, so damning I suspect it won me this award as a critic because I was funny and maybe a bit savage in the way I yelled at him in print.

But really, I only wanted to remind him, as I so often have to remind myself, to pay attention


All NBCC award winners here.

Michelle Dean's journalism and criticism appears regularly in The Guardian, The New Republic, and other venues. Her book Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion, is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. The Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, endowed by NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.

National Book Critics Circle Announces 2016 Award Winners

by admin | Mar-16-2017

Louise Erdrich, Ishion Hutchinson, Margaret Atwood, Yaa Gyasi (front). Matthew Desmond, Ruth Franklin, Carol Anderson. Michelle Dean (back). Photo: John Midgley

New York, NY —Tonight, at the New School in New York, the National Book Critics Circle announced the recipients of its book awards for publishing year 2016. The winners include Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (Harper), a haunting novel about an accidental shooting and its aftermath for two Native American families; and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown), a narrative nonfiction account of tenants and landlords in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Ishion Hutchinson was awarded the poetry prize for House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a collection that traces the landscapes of memory, childhood and the author’s native Jamaica. The criticism award was presented to Carol Anderson for White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury), a searing critique of white America’s systematic resistance to African-American advancement.

Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf) was given the prize in autobiography; it is a witty memoir of her life as geobiologist as well as an eloquent mediation on botany. The biography prize went to Ruth Franklin for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright), about the author of  “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” and the challenges of being a wife, mother and professional writer in mid-century America.

Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (Alfred A. Knopf), an ambitious novel that spans continents and centuries to wrap its arms around the African-American experience of slavery, was the recipient of the John Leonard Prize, recognizing an outstanding first book in any genre. Gyasi was born in Ghana and grew up partly in Alabama. She has an English degree from Stanford, an MFA from the University of Iowa, and now lives in New York.

The recipient of the 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, given to an NBCC member for exceptional critical work, was Michelle Dean. Dean's journalism and criticism appears regularly in The GuardianThe New Republic, and other venues. Her book Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion, is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. The Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, endowed by NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award was Margaret Atwood. Born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Margaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, story writer, essayist, and environmental activist. She is the author of some 16 novels, eight collections of short stories, eight children’s books, 17 volumes of poetry, 10 collections of nonfiction, as well as small press editions, television and radio scripts, plays, recordings, and editions. Her lifetime contribution to letters and book culture include groundbreaking fiction, environmental and feminist activism, and service to community as a cofounder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. 

In addition, the NBCC announced the first recipients of its Emerging Critics Fellowship, a new initiative which aspires to identify, nurture, and support the development of the next generation of book critics. The fellows are Taylor Brorby, Paul W. Gleason, Zachary Graham, Yalie Saweeda Kamara, Summer McDonald, Ismail Muhamad, and Heather Scott Partington.

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.

Contact: Beth Parker, Beth Parker PR,, 914-629-9205

Tom Beer, NBCC President,

Recipients of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Awards


Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury)


Hope Jahren, Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf)


Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright)


Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown)


Louise Erdrich, LaRose (Harper)

The John Leonard Prize

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (Alfred A. Knopf)

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing

Michelle Dean

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award

Margaret Atwood

The NBCC Emerging Critics Fellowships

Taylor Brorby

Paul W. Gleason

Zachary Graham

Yalie Saweeda Kamara

Summer McDonald

Ismail Muhamad

Heather Scott Partington

Bios of award recipients:

Ishion Hutchinson is the author of two poetry collections, House of Lords and Commons and Far District. Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, he moved to the U.S. in 2006 for graduate studies. He’s the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a Lannan Writing Residency, and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches in the graduate writing program at Cornell University.

Carol Anderson, Ph.D., is Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University. Professor Anderson’s research and teaching focus on public policy; particularly the ways that domestic and international policies intersect through the issues of race, justice and equality in the United States. Professor Anderson is also the author of Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 and Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960. White Rage is a New York Times bestseller, and a New York Times Editor’s Pick for July 2016.

Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist who has been pursuing independent research in paleobiology since 1996, when she completed her PhD at University of California Berkeley and began teaching and researching first at the Georgia Institute of Technology and then at Johns Hopkins University. She is the recipient of three Fulbright Awards and is one of four scientists, and the only woman, to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given within the Earth Sciences. She was a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu from 2008 to 2016, where she built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories, with support from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. She currently holds the J. Tuzo Wilson professorship at the University of Oslo, Norway.

Ruth Franklin is a book critic and former editor at The New Republic. She has written for many publications, including The New YorkerHarper’sThe New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and Salmagundi. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in biography, a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a Leon Levy Fellowship in biography, and the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. Her first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2011), was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Matthew Desmond is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and codirector of the Justice and Poverty Project. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, he is the author of the award-winning book, On the Fireline, coauthor of two books on race, and editor of a collection of studies on severe deprivation in America. His work has been supported by the Ford, Russell Sage, and National Science Foundations, and his writing has appeared in the New York TimesThe New Yorker and Chicago Tribune. In 2015, Desmond was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Louise Erdrich is the author of 15 novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. She is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for her debut novel, Love Medicine. She has also won the National Book Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.


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 more than 700 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

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