My Alternate History of the National Book Critics Circle

By Celia McGee

Former NBCC board member Celia McGee wrapped up the NBCC's 35th anniversary celebration on September 12 at WNYC's Jerome L. Greene Performance space with this rousing sendup, “My Alternate History of the NBCC.” :

Keep in mind that fiction is very popular within our organization. That said, here's a brief history of some things I remember from my years on and off the Board. There was the time Michael Jackson showed up for the annual awards ceremony because our very own beloved Liz Taylor had become NBCC president. There was the presidency of Art Winslow, which sparked the influential movement following Pop Art, known as Art Art. There was the time tens of thousands of protestors showed up to demonstrate against the nonfiction finalist Seth Lerer and his “Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter.” It made all three network newscasts. Thanks to sources deep within the government, we now also know why Carlin Romano always had to be in Russia when he was supposed to be at a Board meeting. And that Daphne Merkin was involved. We all remember when Toni Morrison got her dates for the Nobel and the NBCC ceremonies mixed up, and Peder Zane had to dress up as the King of Sweden. A few years after 9/11, we didn't mind when Homeland Security volunteered to take tickets at the awards reception–it's always hard to find Board members to do that–but we were not happy when they insisted on Karl Rove's rock band providing the musical entertainment. There was the day many members drove to rural Pennsylvania for the extreme mud-wrestling match between William Logan and David Orr. And also the very special evening when Sharon Olds shared her family photo albums, and slides from research for her poem “Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor.” The time Kevin Prufer competed on Def-Poetry Jam–and won! The time Tom Wolfe called Steve Wasserman for advice on dry-cleaning white suits. And Wasserman regaled him with tales of his days in the Red Family. There was the year Norman Mailer and Elizabeth Hardwick both campaigned for the fiction award by running for mayor of New York, and Joan Didion, another finalist, chronicled the spirited race in an entire issue of The New York Review of Books. Not long after, Jean Strouse won in general nonfiction for her biography of Alice James, and Scott Rudin optioned it for $2 million because he wanted to adapt it into an action movie musical. He later abandoned the project because neither Maureen McLane nor Samantha Power would agree to star. How about when Alice Walker's “The Color Purple” was a finalist and some woman named Oprah Winfrey inquired about attending the awards ceremony, but we forgot to get back to her? Or when Jorie Graham celebrated her simultaneous nomination for our poetry award, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize by inviting the whole Board to her little castle in Todi. Of course, when Camille Paglia was nominated in criticism, she paid to finally fly them back. That may have been the same year that Reamy Jansen, as NBCC vice-president, took the Board to a seance with Virginia Woolf but only the spirit of Michael Cunningham's grandmother came through for him. It was also so nice of Louis Begley, in the very year he didn't win in fiction, to offer to be our lawyer pro bono–if we would agree to monthly lunches at The Four Seasons. And then came last spring, when Roberto Bolano surprised everyone by walking up onstage at the awards ceremony to acknowledge his fiction win. But this is the year I deserve to win the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing–for the five columns I will be submitting from The National Enquirer, The National Review and Gardens and Guns magazine. I tried to sell a bunch to a publisher as an essay collection. But for some reason, no one would buy them.