Ben Fountain’s debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco: HarperCollins), an LJ Best Book that sharply contrasts our media-centric society with the horrors of war. Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Knopf), the fourth volume in a grand, ferociously detailed biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner), nonfiction at its best, encompassing a range of social issues as it comes to a new understanding of identity, the parent-child relationship, and how we can all be different yet so much alike.
Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Pr: Penguin Group USA), a study of the self through a study of the body. Marina Warner’s exemplary criticism, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (Belknap: Harvard Univ.), which reinvigorates The Thousand and One Nights. And D.A. Powell’s Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf), an LJ Best Poetry Book that effectively captures the spiritual and the profane, growing up and growing old.
These were the six winners of the National Book Critics Circle Awards for publishing year 2012, announced last week at a festive event at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium in New York. Of course I want to highlight these awards, having just wrapped up six years as awards vice president for the NBCC. More to the point, the NBCC awards are the only ones given anywhere that are chosen exclusively by practicing critics. They’re well-considered, well-debated awards by folks who read widely and have no axe to grind.
Still, people frequently ask what good awards are. Thinking about this year’s finalists, I would say that aside from energizing readers with a list of great reads and further spurring the literary conversation, awards are a good measure of what’s happening in literature today.
Thus, while the biography winner was Caro’s traditional, rock-solid Passage of Power, biography finalists included Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (Liveright: Norton), an elegant understanding of a great novelist as seen through the lens of one of his great works and as much criticism as biography. Other border-crossing works include Shapton’s Swimming Studies, less autobiography than paean to physically being in the world from a champion swimmer–turned–artist, and autobiography finalist Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets (Farrar), a meditation on how she came to poetry that also illuminates some of the world’s more interesting writers. Of these three, McLane in particular writes in heightened language that, even as she speaks about poetry, truly redefines prose.
More fascinating genre crossing—and more arrestingly flexible language—can be found in fiction finalist Laurent Binet’s HHhH (Farrar, tr. by Sam Taylor), both a novel about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and a study of Binet’s interest in the subject that could read as fiction, history, biography, or memoir. Finalist Zadie Smith’s NW (Penguin Pr: Penguin Group USA), an LJ Best Book, also explores the possibilities of fiction writing today. Fiction winner Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk occasionally offers scattered type to show the protagonist’s scattered state of mind, though the real accomplishment here, as novels just start to discuss the situation in Iraq, was bringing the war back home.
All the poetry finalists offered vivid language representing the height of their skills, but in this free-verse world A.E. Stallings’s Olives (Triquarterly: Northwestern Univ.) was almost radical in offering compact, carefully crafted rhyme. Maybe we’ll be see more. Finally, Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner) brings in personal perception as well as fine reporting to enlarge our understanding of nonfiction—and of what it means to be human. Solomon’s book is remarkable in showing how boundary drawing in life is fading, just as it is in literature.