Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post by Linda Wolfe: A Brief Concise History of the NBCC

By Jane Ciabattari

On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the NBCC, board member Linda Wolfe provides this brief concise history of the NBCC—originally published in the Winter 2000 issue of the NBCC Journal

The year, old timers recall, was 1974. The NBA’s funding had been slashed and its literary awards were under threat. Dismayed that there might be no prizes for outstanding books, Ivan Sandrof, book editor of the Worcester Telegram-Gazette, and John Barkham, syndicated book columnist, dreamed up the idea of having a group of book critics commend literary excellence by offering a critic’s prize.

As a first step, according to literary agent Rich Barber, then treasurer and president-elect of the Publishers Publicity Association, Sandrof and Barkham invited him to invite them to lunch, and when he obliged, asked whether he thought that if the NBA went under, he could get publishers to support an award given by critics. Barber wasn’t sure. “Publishers don’t like to spend money on anything but lunch,” he reminded them.

But he subsequently succeeded in getting the PPA to give Sandrof and Barkham a thousand dollars to try to get a critics’ organization off the ground and later supplemented the money with his own check for $1000. They were always, he recalls, operating on a shoestring—the very first NBCC tradition, it would appear.

By the time Sandrof and Barkham had gotten their seed money it was clear that the NBA was going to continue to function, at least for that year. But the pair had become increasingly interested in establishing a critic’s organization, preferably one that gave out literary prizes. Contacting book review editors across the country, they soon formed a small committee—“a squabbling, opinionated gang of individualists,” according to one of the initial members, author Digby Diehl, then book editor of the L.A. Times.

The first meeting was held, Diehl recalled, at a “dingy restaurant on Broadway and 44th Street,” and was attended by, among others, Nona Balakian from the New York Times Book Review, Barbara Bannon from Publishers Weekly, Herb Kenney from the Boston Globe, and Larry Swindell from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Subsequent meetings were held at the Algonquin, whose owner offered the critics a free room in the hopes of reviving the hotel’s long-faded image as a hangout for the literati. By the time the Algonquin became the NBCC’s official meeting site, many other legendary book review editors and reviewers had come aboard, among them Walter Clemons and Peter Prescott from Newsweek, Eliot Fremont-Smith from the Village Voice, Elizabeth Hardwick from the New York Review of Books, Bill Hogan from the San Francisco Chronicle, John Leonard from the New York Times, Margaret Manning from the Boston Globe, and Bill McPherson from the Washington Post.

Fremont-Smith recalls of an early Algonquin meeting that, “We knew by the time we got going that the NBA was going to continue giving out awards, but the verbalized thing was still that we were afraid they’d go under, or that if they didn’t, they were going to start giving out prizes in every category known to publishing. We were going to be the voice of sanity.”

Still, not all the members of the fledgling organization were in favor of prize-giving, a fact which caused the first meetings to be marked by what has since become another NBCC tradition—dissension and wrangling. Leonard recalls that the anti-prize faction wanted the NBCC to concentrate on correcting the indignities that reviewers faced, such matters as low pay and publishers’ ads that cited reviewers’ affiliations, not their names—indignities that are still with us.

It took close to two years for the organization really to get going and for Sandrof’s vision of book critics’ awards to prevail. But in 1976, the first NBCC awards were given. Fremont-Smith drafted the basic rules of the awards procedure. “From the start, we had to have five nominees in each category, and the winner had to come from among the nominees. The process was that the board talked itself to death. If anybody had an objection, the rest of us kept talking until he or she gave in. Then we had to ratify the slate, take a vote agreeing that these were the best choices we could come up with and that they had been chosen in the fairest fashion. This ratification had to be unanimous.”

Fremont-Smith remembers some fierce early NBCC battles. Like the time Margaret Manning refused to ratify a slate. Or the time Peter Prescott resigned in a fit of pique after polling the board and discovering that only one person on it had been willing to read more than five pages of William Gaddis’s JR. Or the way Elizabeth Hardwick, “a formidable presence” because of her reputation and her bearing, would not engage in disputation but “merely issue a dismissive laugh when a board member proposed a book she distained.”

Others remember other major battles, among them drawn-out fights over whether or not to allow freelance critics equal status with book review editors, or to discontinue the early practice of having book publicists as associate members.

But those stories—and many more—will have to wait till there’s a newsletter with more space.