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British invasion dominates book critics’ annual awards

March 12, 2010

Hilary Mantel at the Man Booker ceremony in November.

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?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    March 12, 2010 12:04 pm

    I have to disagree with Mantel, I think that critics are bandwagon jumpers too.

    I think that the little seal on the front or text telling me that a book has won some sort of prize does influence me. There was a period when I read a few Man Book Finalists in a row and I didn’t like any of them so that kind of put me off the scent of that.

    Normally I read on recommendation. Life is too short to read bad books. But if I was in a pinch and had no idea where to turn I might base a decision on a book having won some prestigious award.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 12, 2010 12:23 pm

    Well, the American composer Charles Ives is attributed with the remark, “Awards are merely the badges of mediocrity,” which I find often to be true. But not always. In this case, Mantel has written a transcendent historical novel, one that brings the life of early 16th century England into sharp and entertaining relief.

    But as your experience with the Booker winners shows, following the prizewinners is as chancy as any other method.

  3. March 12, 2010 12:58 pm

    Yes it does influence me. We are talking about it. You like the book. Now I will read it. If the award is solid it is very good for the author. I like when they mention the top 3 or 5 though. More authors get exposed. It is a good thing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2010 1:15 pm

      I agree, John. In fact, I think all literary prizes — heck, all arts awards of any kind — should stop with a short list of five. Each novel, symphony, movie, play or what have you is so different, how do you judge? Although I will say that The Hurt Locker is a better movie than Avatar. But still.

  4. John Karwacki permalink
    March 12, 2010 1:16 pm

    Chauncey not being contrary – what! Oh, there you are in the comments, back to your irascible self. I don’t think I have ever read a book because of an award. A friend turned me on to “A Confederacy Of Dunces” back in the 80’s and I have been listening to friends since to mostly positive results. Just finished Conde’s “…Cannibal Woman” and loved it – thanks Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2010 5:49 pm

      Youre welcome. Cannibal Woman is one of the best novels I’ve read this decade. I like Dunces, too. Trusted friends — good old word of mouth — is always the most reliable, though it’s not perfect, either.

  5. March 12, 2010 1:23 pm

    Richard Holmes THE AGE OF WONDER kept me enthralled. I highly recommend it to all. I haven’t read any of the others, but will now. Also, let me plug a novel that also kept me enthralled. It’s by Thomas E. Kennedy. It’s getting rave reviews, stars, etc. It’s called IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2010 5:51 pm

      I’d love to hear what you think of Wolf Hall, Duff. As you can see, I was much impressed with it.

  6. alexis permalink
    March 12, 2010 1:59 pm

    My deepest sympathies. I cannot imagine what it was like for you to discover you actually agreed with most of the categories. How bored you must be….

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2010 5:51 pm

      You know me so well, on such short acquaintance.

  7. Monica permalink
    March 12, 2010 7:00 pm

    Just as in movies or music, any book that wins an award is going to spark my interest, but it is ultimately more content and personal preference of subject matter upon which I base my choices about what to watch, read, or listen to. Although, I do take the recommendations of those that I highly respect into consideration as well when making these choices, so I have quite a few new books added to my “to read” list since I have been reading your blog, Chauncey- thanks!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2010 8:19 pm

      My pleasure — that’s what all this is about, really, talking books, keeping the cultural conversation going, bringing new titles to everyone’s attention. That used to be the function of newspapers and magazines, but fewer and fewer of them have book critics these days (don’t I know it!), so we have to keep chatter up as we can. Awards, and talking about awards, are useful. In fact, that’s about the only legitimate use for book awards, I think.

  8. Connie permalink
    March 12, 2010 7:16 pm

    Awards definitely make me pay attention to the book, but not all awards are equal. I tend to like Man Booker winners (even though they refuse to acknowledge my beloved Martin Amis, and please don’t tell me “Time’s Arrow” was shortlisted; yeah, yeah, that’s still not a win. How can London Fields NOT HAVE WON A BOOKER?) But I digress. Some of my favorite novels are Booker winners (A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Ondaatje’s The English Patient). Pulitzers, too, especially since Junot Diaz rocked my world with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But the National Book Awards, not so much. Don’t always approve of their choices.

    Not sure how I feel about NBCC. But I do know I’ve heard enough good things about Wolf Hall to want to read it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2010 8:23 pm

      Martin is in my dog house a bit right now, after he’s made such a ridiculous ass of himself in public comments surrounding the publication of his new book. But I still admire his books, London Fields especially. I feel exactly the way you do about the Pulitzer and the National Book Award — except in reverse. The Pulitzer seems like a lightweight, often ill-considered prize, and it seems even more political than the rest of them. Plus, looking at it historically, I still scoff every time I think about James Michener winning for Tales of the South Pacific.

      I’m very intereseted to see what you think of Wolf Hall. I hope I haven’t built it up beyond what any book could match.

  9. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 13, 2010 12:20 am

    Awards help. So do recommendations from you and other critics. Especially you because I trust your taste. But I must ask–when did you start using the phrase, “oh pooh”???

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 13, 2010 1:34 pm

      Like a pungent condiment, I use it rarely. Thanks for the kind words.

  10. RA Rycraft permalink
    March 13, 2010 10:28 am

    Sometimes the awards help me find a book to read, but – more often than not – what’s going to prompt me to read a book are the recommendations of my book-loving friends (and I’m surrounded by a lot of them – at home and at work) or articles like this once, Chauncey. So – on your recommendation – I’m ordering Hilary Mantel and Diane Athill. Blake Bailey’s Cheever biography was already on my list. 🙂

  11. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 13, 2010 1:35 pm

    I also have done well reading books recommended by authors I already like.

  12. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 13, 2010 1:36 pm

    By the way, I hope you’re not disappointed by the Mantel, the Athill or the Bailey, though I’ll be shocked if you are.

  13. Connie permalink
    March 14, 2010 1:16 pm

    Friends’ recommendations – as long as they’re friends whose taste is similar to mine! – definitely make a big difference in whether or not I pick up a book…probably more than prizes. But when a book is praised by friends and critics – like Wolf Hall – there’s a good chance I’ll get to it eventually.

    That said, I have a friend who’s been bugging me to read Twilight and…I just don’t see that happening.

  14. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 14, 2010 9:50 pm

    Friends don’t let friends read Twilight. What? You never heard that before?!?

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