British invasion dominates book critics’ annual awards
Three British authors took top honors at the National Book Critics Circle annual awards ceremony in New York last night, led by Hilary Mantel, whose historical novel Wolf Hall also won Britain’s Man Booker Prize. Seldom has a single novel been so universally praised.
Mantel was not present at the ceremony, presumably tied up writing the announced sequel to Wolf Hall, but she told the Guardian she was “thrilled” to win an award bestowed by professional critics.
“You know that this isn’t people jumping on a bandwagon- they’re not about to be influenced by the fact that you’ve won a prize in another country,” Mantel said.
While I usually enjoy the role of contrarian, pointing out the shortcomings in books other critics adore, that’s not the case this time. Count me among those who think Wolf Hall at the head of the 2009 fiction class, not to mention among the best historical novels of all time.
In fact, the NBCC is quite disappointing to me this year. Most of the time I scoff at the selections of my fellow critics, but I am distressed to find myself in agreement with almost every category. Oh, pooh.
British historian Richard Holmes took the general nonfiction category with his superb The Age of Wonder, a dazzling account of the emergence of modern science in the Romantic Age. Diane Athill, a 92-year-old British literary editor, won in the autobiography category for Somewhere Toward the End.
I haven’t read that one, but it’s said to be “an atheist’s spirited reflection on old age.” Sounds tasty.
Blake Bailey (an American at last!) won the biography prize for Cheever: A Life, a thoroughly researched book about the great writer John Cheever. Well written, beautifully constructed, it often has the reading power of a good novel.
Eula Biss took the criticism award for her collection, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. The poetry category went to Rae Armantrout for Versed.
The NBCC’s two honorary awards went to Joyce Carol Oates for Lifetime Achievement, while Joanne Acocella, The New Yorker dance critic, received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, a kind of lifetime award for criticism.
Like Mantel, Oates had nice things to say about professional book reviewers. She’s not always had smooth relations with the tribe, but she writes a good deal of criticism herself. And this was an occasion to celebrate the work of critics, an essential part of the literary and general cultural dialogue.
“I feel a kinship with all the reviewers here in this room,” Oates said.
Alas, I was not able to attend this year’s NBCC, but remarks like that give me a warm and fuzzy feeling all over.
But let me pose you a question: The National Book Critics Circle awards are probably the third most prestigious literary prize in America, after the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Are you in any way influenced by such awards when you’re picking a book to read? If not, what does help you decide?