The Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing is named in honor of Nona Balakian,a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle and its first secretary. She worked on the staff of The New York Times Book Review for 43 years.
Balakian was the author of “Critical Encounters: Essays” (1978), and co-wrote “The Creative Present” (1969) with Charles Simmons. She died in 1991, having spent the last decade of her life writing “The World of William Saroyan,” a biography of the fiction writer (“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”) and playwright. Her efforts as a critic to revive his flagging career bore fruit. The centenary of Saroyan’s birth this year was honored by events throughout the country, including in his hometown of Fresno, California.
Previous winners of the NBCC Balakian citation include Steven G. Kellman, Daniel Mendelsohn, Thomas Mallon, Laurie Stone, Maureen McLane, Scott McLemee, Albert Mobilio, JoAnn Gutin, David Orr, Brigitte Frase, Elizabeth Ward, Molly Giles, and George Scialabba.
Here is NBCC board member and Balakian committee chair Celia McGee’s citation honoring Sam Anderson, winner of this year’s Nona Balakian award, at the NBCC awards ceremony on March 6:
Earlier this week in New York magazine, where he is the book critic, in a review of Richard Price’s new novel, “Lush Life,” Sam Anderson invented a term: GRAMNO. It stands for Great American Novel, and, with his usual knowledgeable panache, he decides that’s what Price has almost written, but not quite. This evening I’d like to suggest, on the occasion of celebrating Sam as the winner of this year’s Balakian award, that he writes GRAMBOREVS: Great American Book Reviews. Which is not to say that he only reviews books by Americans. He first came to attention of many as the author of RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: JOYCE, an essay about tracking James Joyce through Dublin, which appeared in The American Scholar.
And he has a particular passion for another Irishman, the novelist Flann O’Brien, that has kept him plugging away, against any better judgment I would offer him, on a Ph.D. And don’t get him started on Martin Amis or J.K. Rowling, as he did in two of the reviews that helped win him tonight’s award, or you will wind up so dazzled, persuaded and crying with laughter that you will want him never, ever to stop. Amis he calls “The Grand Wizard of schadenfreude,” and Harry Potter he ends up comparing, startled and unfavorably, to “Of Mice and Men.” But he is an American, and he is a great book reviewer. Q.E.D., as another profession might put it.
How American is he? For that I must start with his mother, and I must put it this way: he knows that I’m a little disappointed with her. Why? Well, though I have no eye witness account except his, apparently she was in labor with little Sam the day Elvis Presley died. And here I quote from an autobiographical email: “My mom watched the news feed on the hospital room’s TV, and later watched me for signs that I was some kind of mystical reincarnation, which turned out not to be true.” She didn’t name the boy Elvis! Hard to believe, I know—nonetheless, he grew up all-American in Oregon and northern California, majored in English and in writing for the student newspaper at Southern Oregon University, then transferred to Louisiana State University, not in search of the ghost of Elvis but to follow a girlfriend. In search of who knows what—he came here, to grad school at NYU. Unfortunately for his future in academia, his Joyce essay won the 2004 Best Essay Award from The American Scholar, which led to regular assignments from Slate and others, and then Adam Moss was inspired to hire him.
The girlfriend story also has a happy ending. She’s now his wife, and they live with their two children up the Hudson in Beacon. Given that location, I also like to think of Sam Anderson as a Hudson River School landscape painter, with words. This week, the sunlight was mixed with a lot of grime. And here I quote again:
Stanny looked around the squad room, the Quality of Literature task force: Mayo, Sanchez, Hsu—three clip-on ties at a faux-oak table; their mantra: Quote summarize, condemn; their motto: Judge every book by its cover.”
Ladies and gentlemen, it gives the National Book Critics Circle great pleasure to present the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing to Sam Anderson.—Celia McGee
Photo credit: Miriam Berkley