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NBCC Reads

Guest Post by E.L. Doctorow: On the State of our Literary Republic

By Jane Ciabattari

E.L. Doctorow, awarded the first National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, recalled then and now in remarks at the NBCC’s 35th anniversary celebration at WNYC’s Greene Performance Space on September 12. A video of his remarks, including an introduction by NBCC board member Geeta Sharma Jensen, appears below.

In 1976 I was in Jerusalem at a retreat for guest foreign writers and artists when I received a call from New York—-it was my editor at Random House, Jim Silberman, informing me that my novel Ragtime had won some kind of award. He said that I had to come back to NY to receive it.

“How important is this,” I said, “I’ve only just settled in here.”

“It’s very important,” he said, ” it’s the first fiction award of the National Book Critics Circle. I think you’d better get on a plane.”

And so I did. As I recall, the ceremony was held somewhere in Rockefeller Center. A lot of people were there, it was a festive scene, and John Leonard may have been the presenter. Is that accurate? I remember some sort of NBCC banner behind the podium, and flashbulbs going off and John’s big smile. And my editor was right – the award was important, and it has continued to be important in the thirty-five years since.

I should admit to the great gratification I have felt in being again a winner of your NBCC fiction award – in 1989 for Billy Bathgate, and then in 2005 for The March. (It’s true that I sometimes wonder if such honors are good for the literary culture as a whole, but it is also true that when I am offered an award I tend to accept it.)

Our literary republic is quite different from what it was even as recently as 2005. And if in their historical relations, authors and critics have often resembled opposing camps—as how could they not when the imponderables of literature are weighed and judged—what the present situation brings out is that we are one literary community, and so all in this mess together. The dire state of the newspaper business, the dying of the free standing newspaper book review sections, the job losses, the internet’s Katrina-like effect on all print culture, cyberspace as a platform for what is insistently visual, archly monosyllabic, and the ethics and economics of linkage—all of this seemingly complicit with what may be a national epidemic of attention deficit disorder—makes us, well let me describe it iconically… here is a single person sitting somewhere writing a book in silence… and here is another person sitting somewhere and reading that book in silence. What is written in silence, and read and written about in silence—that’s us, and how lovely it all seems, now, how fine, how civilized, how retro. Whereas the truth about books is that they are more intensely interactive in the reading than anything involving the pushing of buttons to see images flashing on a screen.

So the question is this—is there a place in the future for the likes of us?  Well. there are recourses—some indication of a rising universe of blogs that will eventually conglomerate and take on a familiar look. The evolved form of the electro-digital world is to come, its marketplace disciplines are still to be determined. But finally, we are talking about adversity—something which I, personally, have always found enabling. I recall the NY newspaper strike in the early sixties: it aroused Jason Epstein, Elizabeth Hardwick and some others, to found the New York Review of Books. Perhaps with an angel or two writing a cheque—for the recession will recede, I’m told—there could come from your hands a National Review of Books—a forum for critics and reviewers all over the country—in print on the newstands, as inserts in the very newspapers that abandoned their own efforts, and by subscription and in the bookstores, and online.  Surely book publishers would show their appreciation. On the other hand, maybe not. I am not too sound when it comes to a business ideas.

In the early nineties I and some friends started a company that envisioned a television channel devoted exclusively to books and authors—“Booknet,” we called it, and we came up a wealth of wonderful programming ideas – author interviews, programs for specific genres, readings, courses in literacy, critic anchors, movies based on books, etc.—and an ongoing book selling platform, of course. We were turned away by the cable giants, but what was more surprising, by the publishing houses as well So this chastened author went back to what he knew, consoling himself with tales of business disasters of his predecessors like the one about Jack London, who looked on the Napa valley in California and was inspired to found the Jack London Grape Juice Company. In the Napa valley. Grape Juice. Or Mark Twain, who went broke investing in the Paige typesetting machine. A beautiful work of sculpture unfortunately reluctant to typeset—you can see it now sitting gloriously in the basement of the Twain house in Hartford.

But I do have one sound idea by way of conclusion: think up another award for criticism to be directed at yourselves, and name it after John Leonard.

I congratulate you, NBCC:  in a country of failing institutions your thirty-five years of existence are exemplary.