Morris Dickstein served two terms on the NBCC board during the 1980s. His book “Gates of Eden” was nominated for the NBCC award in criticism in 1978. His “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” has just been published by W. W. Norton.
When Ivan Sandrof, Nona Balakian, and a few of their friends conceived the National Book Critics Circle in 1974, few would have expected it to survive and thrive for another 35 years. Nor could they have imagined the changes in writing, technology, and publishing during that period. Edmund Wilson had died only two years earlier, and an era in criticism seemed to have died with him. The early members were an unlikely combination of staff writers for newspapers and magazines, book review editors, freelance reviewers, and academics moonlighting as literary journalists. I belonged to that last group, taking an unpopular professional route at a time when my colleagues were moving toward deconstruction and other jargon-riddled forms of theory. For many of my peers at the university, writing for a general audience was considered lazy, unserious, a throwback to an older world of middlebrow belles lettres, though I thought it more challenging than crafting narrow-gauged scholarly articles. For me it was a way of stepping back from intellectual fashion and engaging with the world, especially the core human realities at the heart of writers and writing, as great critics like Wilson had always tried to do.
From the outset, the annual prizes became a main focus – sometimes the only focus – of the NBCC. Almost instantly these awards gained major cultural prestige because of the high standards they brought to bear and the lively atmosphere of unstuffy literary seriousness they managed to maintain. They were devoted to the notion that great writing could be fun, that literary culture belonged not merely in the syllabus but in the lives of ordinary readers. The annual NBCC awards day itself was a much-anticipated pleasure, a busy day filled out with a contentious members’ meeting, a free publishers’ luncheon, a vigorous panel discussion, and an unusually good reception that attracted the cream of the literary and publishing worlds and enabled out-of town members to make worthwhile contacts.
The acceptance speeches by some of the winning authors were in a category all their own. When John Cheever received the fiction prize for his Collected Stories, which had resurrected his reputation, he let slip that he’d expected to spend the rest of his life handing out just such awards to his friend Saul Bellow. A few years later, accepting the same award for Ironweed, William Kennedy gazed down at the assembled publishers and editors as he informed them that seventeen houses had turned the book down before Viking (perhaps under Bellow’s prodding) agreed to publish it. It was a lesson some of us would never forget.
The supreme fun during the six years I served on the NBCC board during the 1980s came as we debated and decided on the nominees and ultimately on the winners of these coveted awards. In those days the whole board, with the help of nominations from the membership, vetted books in all categories, a massive job if taken seriously. I recall setting aside at least two or three months each year for the bulk of the reading, whose staggering breadth and range still hold me in good stead today. Foundering, then coming up for air amid piles of books in multiple categories was something like drowning but also a way of learning to swim. The reward, aside from the deep satisfaction discovering new writers and recognizing real merit, was in the fierce discussions that invariably took place when the board met. This was some of the most heated, most passionate, most canny and intense literary conversation I have ever known. Despite sharp differences of opinion, warm friendships were forged that continued long after I had left the board. These debates, which were not without political strategizing, compared favorably with most literary argument I’ve heard within universities. And there was more at stake, actual literary careers, genuine cultural recognition, not simply abstract position-taking.
Today, as more and more print publications fold or turn eerily thin, starved for advertising, as those that survive cut back drastically on their reviewing sections, the potential role of the NBCC grows ever more urgent. It remains paramount to draw attention to excellence, to separate the great from the good. But it is equally crucial to promote reading in general, to protect and enlarge the literary curriculum in schools, to defend book reviewers and the space allotted to their work, to carve out sites for genuine literary discussion on the Internet, and to keep publishers and readers engaged with serious and enduring, not just commercial work. Movie critics, art critics, and music critics are as beleaguered as book critics, and we might find greater strength in forging alliances with them. Hanging in the balance is not simply our own well-being, our private welfare, but the very grain of our culture, which cannot do without the keen self-understanding, the shafts of human insight, the matchless historical illumination that good writing and sharp critical judgment have always afforded us.