Critical Mass

Linda Wolfe on the NBCC at 35

By Eric Banks

On the occasion of the NBCC’s 35th anniversary, board member Linda Wolfe remembers the first NBCC awards ceremony, in 1976. A video of her remarks, delivered at the 35th anniversary celebration at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space on September 12, appears below.

I was invited to attend the first awards ceremony of the NBCC in 1976 – the ceremony would be celebrating a handful of book critics’ choices of four works they considered the best published in the year 1975. At the time I was a Contributing Editor of New York magazine, writing about everything from soups to sociopathic nuts, from murder and madness to high literary-jinks. So I guess the nascent NBCC was hoping for some kind of coverage – though I wasn’t altogether sure in what category the group the group would fit.

That first ceremony was incredibly affecting. The winning authors – R.W. B Lewis , Paul Fussell, Ed Doctorow and John Ashbery – had been told in advance they were to be honored, and each had prepared a knockout of a speech. They spoke stirringly about literary responsibility, about the subtle tango between critic and creator, about the art and craft of writing. A woman sitting alongside me, a literary agent planning to move to Seattle, whispered, “I’m going to come to this ceremony every year, even if I have to pay my own airfare!”

And she did. Or at least she did until the board decided the suspense that would be generated by announcing the winners at and not before the ceremony would benefit the NBCC more than those well-crafted acceptance speeches. Alas, those fell by the wayside. But at that first ceremony, I found the winners’ speeches so moving that I joined the NBCC right afterward, and I’ve remained a member for 33 years.

The youthful organization sowed some wild oats in those early days. There were scandals! I unearthed a few of them in the mid nineteen-nineties when I became board secretary and decided that as part of my duties I ought to familiarize myself with the NBCC’s early history by looking at some of the organization’s old documents stored at the Beinecke Library at Yale. Uh-Oh. Lines had been blacked out, facts hidden, communications censored – all very secret service.  But among what could still be read were hints of mischief, miscreance, misdemeanor: a board member accused of misappropriating money; further use of an august site for our annual awards ceremony denied because a prominent participant got wasted and threw up on the marble stairs. Then there was the time Something Happened at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley (I never did quite decipher all the details, but there are old-timers among us who might be prevailed upon to drop their long held silence.) And of course in those days board meetings commenced, continued and terminated not with today’s ascetic offerings of bottled water, soda and coffee but with booze – plenty of it.

These things are fun to contemplate. But they shouldn’t distract from the NBCC’s accomplishments, not the least of which is the way it has served readers year after year by identifying the best literary works of our time. When I look back at the winners of the NBCC awards over these past two-and-a-half decades, I am always amazed at how so many of the books chosen by the board and membership have turned out to be the classics of today.

Tonight two of those winners [John Ashbery and E.L. Doctorow] from that very first awards ceremony are with us. And I can’t tell you how eager I am to hear them speak to us once again. Will they be as stirring? Or was it just because I was young?