Jan Harayda served as Vice President/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. She sent these remarks in celebration of the NBCC’s 35th, and joined in the webcast celebration on September 12 at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space. She writes the One-Minute Book Reviews blog. She has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour.
Rebecca West said in her Paris Review interview that she liked reviewing because it makes you “really open your mind to a book.” I liked serving on the National Book Critics Circle board for a similar reason: If being a critic opened my mind to books I might have ignored, being an NBCC director further widened the space through which worthy books could enter my life.
That process operated on at least two levels. As an NBCC board member, I spoke regularly with critics who had read far more widely in some areas than I may read in my lifetime. It was stimulating—and fun—- to talk to Barbara Hoffert about poetry, Steve Kellman about works in translation and Elizabeth Taylor about books about the Midwest, to name only three of the experts who enriched my experience as a director.
But if private conversations with such critics offered a gentle nudging, judging the NBCC awards was closer to having the lock on your mind ripped off by a special-ops team. Most board members went into the voting sessions with favorites, then saw some eliminated on the first vote. To judge fairly, you had to open your mind to books you might have sworn a few days earlier that you wouldn’t consider. And you had to do it when you felt like a participant in a sleep-deprivation experiment after reading all the finalists in the weeks before the awards ceremony.
The final sessions at times felt like “Lord of the Flies,” or the boardroom on “The Apprentice. But the cacophony wasn’t gratuitous: It arose because a lot of critics were stumping for books so small or quirky they might have had no chance in other contests. Some of those books deservedly won. So I hope that the NBCC won’t reduce the size of its board as book sections disappear. The relatively large number of voters gives more critics have a chance to “open your mind to a book.” And it gives the NBCC more opportunity to open the minds of others to books that, without institutional support from critics, they might never discover.