NBCC Awards Night: President’s Welcome

By Jane Ciabattari

NBCC President Jane Ciabattari, NBCC board member John Reed and NBCC autobiography finalist Patti Smith before the March 10 awards ceremony.  Photo courtesy of David ShankboneThank you Robert. Robert Polito is a National Book award winner himself, for his biography of Jim Thompson.

Thank you The New School; we value our ongoing literary partnership.  And thanks to everyone for coming. A special welcome to our student members in the audience and to the members of the Young to Publishing Group.  You are our future.

And a special thanks to the 24-member board of the National Book Critics Circle. Would you twenty-four board members—and the newly elected board members who join us tomorrow at the first meeting of the year—please stand?

It’s an eclectic and distinguished group, including several past presidents, and several past winners of our Balakian award for criticism. It’s been an honor to serve as their president for the past three years.  

Something you in the audience need to know. This is an all volunteer board. The annual budget of the NBCC has never reached $50,000. The work we do is a labor of love. And we just spent all day together, talking about books with passion and zest.  Among the comments, which I can reveal without breach of confidentiality. One book was praised for its “fierceness of imagination.” Of another, someone said, “One remains haunted by the voices.”

Special thanks tonight to Barbara Hoffert, the awards chair; we couldn’t do this without her; to our treasurer Rigoberto Gonzalez, for managing our money; to Steve Kellman, our membership chair, who has welcomed a couple hundred new members this past year, and to John Reed, events chair, who has worked tirelessly, pulling together marvelous events at the BEA and Brooklyn Book Fair and even  coming up with a Litcrawl night where critics were allowed to repent and recant.

Thanks to Craig Teicher, our VP/Tech, who is keeping us up to date on our website, to our superb web manager David Varno, and especially to Eric Banks, our blog VP, who among other things keeps Critical Mass rolling 24/7, most recently curating the marathon 31 books in 31 days in which board members review all the finalists.

And a big thanks to the NEA; our first ever National Endowment for the Arts grants helps us post videos and podcasts of NBCC events on Critical Mass.

When the National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974 at the Algonquin Round Table, the founding members like John Leonard and Nona Balakian and Ivan Sandrof were staff critics and reviewers primarily; some had academic positions.  Today most of our members are freelancers, and they’re as likely to be writing for online publications as for print.

When I was elected NBCC president in 2008, the print  book universe was in chaos, and many feared the worst. At that point, Twitter was just another start-up, and the iPad was just a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eye.

Three years later, the critical landscape has been transformed, by Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads and other social networking options, online book sections, new online websites for book coverage. It’s breathtaking.  And there is good news in the mix: The WSJ launched a book section. The prepublication reviews like LJ, PW and Kirkus have been revamped after being closed down or almost closed down. The top book websites have familiar names:,,,, NPR, Oprah, along with relative newcomers like Salon and Slate and The Daily Beast.

One thing is clear. We are a nation of passionate readers. Book-related discussions and online publications take up millions of characters on the internet each week, and connect readers in book groups in every community.

Over the last three years, the NBCC has attracted thousands of readers to Critical Mass, and to our Facebook page. We’ve had thousands attend  events throughout the country at bookstores and libraries in Minneapolis, Kansas City, Iowa City, San Francisco, at WNYC’s Greene Performance Space, the BEA, PEN World Voices Festival, and the sprawling weekend long book fairs in Brooklyn, Portland, and Virginia. Just last month at the AWP in Washington, D.C., we drew an audience of more than 2000 to our fiction reading by NBCC winners and finalists Chimamanda Adichie, Edward P. Jones, Jayne Anne Phillips, Elizabeth Strout and Colson Whitehead.

A need for storytelling voices is in our DNA. No matter what the form—digital, electronic, print, or spoken word—we recognize good writing and yearn for fresh voices. Reading moves us and serves as a necessary companion, a comfort in these trying times. 

Without good writing, critics would be at a loss. As the critic Zadie Smith, an NBCC fiction finalist who was with us in January to announce this year's fiction finalists, has noted, “writing a piece of criticism is just writing a beautiful thing as a partner to a beautiful thing.”

So tonight our focus is not on the technology that is changing by the second; we’re here to talk, as always,  about the writing, and to honor the best literary works of the year 2010.

We’re grateful to the finalists who are here tonight to read from their work. They have flown in from Kathmandu, Turkey, Israel, London, California, Texas…they’ve come across the bridge from Brooklyn, and down 69 blocks on this island.

This group of 31 finalists goes into the NBCC’s literary pantheon, to be listed on our website, enlisted in our events and asked to contribute to our blog. 

On behalf of the NBCC, I welcome them all, and thank  them for being here.

One last thing. It’s been a great three years. I want to thank all of you for your enthusiasm and willingness to help out. Please say a congratulations to several board members who are leaving after their terms end tonight—Linda Wolfe, who was a founding member; James Marcus, who curated the NBCC Reads program and served as criticism chair; Scott McLemee, a Balakian winner who chaired the Balakian committee, and Art Winslow, a former president, who chaired the nonfiction committee and gave us the easy way of voting called the “Winslow method.” And you also can congratulate new board members Ben Moser, who was a finalist in biography a couple of years ago, Sue Shapiro, and to returning board members Marcela Valdes, Oscar Villalon and Eric Miles Williamson.

And now let me turn the podium over to Scott McLemee, who will introduce the winner of our Balakian award for excellence in reviewing, Parul Sehgal.

Photo courtesy of David Shankbone. NBCC autobiography finalist Patti Smith, NBCC President Jane Ciabattari, and NBCC board member John Reed before the March 10 awards ceremony.