What is your favorite National Book Critics Circle finalist of all time? The first NBCC winners, honored in 1975 for books published in 1974, were E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, fiction), John Ashbery (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, poetry), R.W.B. Lewis for his biography of Edith Wharton, and Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory, criticism). In 2014 the National Book Critics Circle prepares to celebrate nearly forty years of the best work selected by the critics themselves, and also to launch the new John Leonard award for first book. So we're looking back at the winners and finalists, all archived on our website, and we've asked our members and former honorees to pick a favorite. Here's the thirty-sixth in our latest in six years of NBCC Reads surveys.
Wow, you ask tough questions. I've been around for so many extraordinary winners, not to mention extraordinary finalists. To choose a favorite I decided that my criterion should be: a book so unique (as well as wonderful) that it would still be admired and enjoyed by discerning readers 37 years from now — that is, discerning readers in as many years as I've been with the NBCC. I am therefore choosing Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, because of the originality of her style.
Not only did she tell an irresistible sleekly plotted story, but, she used an altogether new voice to tell it, making the third-person “he” of the book's hero, Thomas Cromwell, sound as intimate a voice as the “I” in a first-person memoir. And not only did she create dialogue that sounded appropriate to the period her tale was about, but at times she also hazarded dialogue that was boldly sassy and positively contemporary. I'm betting that dialogue will still sound contemporary and fresh to the ears of readers 37 years from now.
But oh, can't I pick runners-up? My winner, and my finalists? If so, I'd choose:
Philip Roth, The Professor of Desire and The Counterlife and The Ghost Writer
Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman
Ian McEwan, Atonement
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
These books also met my requirement: that folks 37 years from now would still be reading and enjoying them.