“There is no competition among writers; not even Shakespeare and Dante say it all,” proclaimed poet Frank Bidart upon receiving the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for Metaphysical Dog (Farrar) at a packed NBCC Awards Ceremony on March 13 at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium in New York. Yet for Bidart, an NBCC finalist for In the Western Night (1990) and Desire (1997), a National Book Award finalist for Desire, Star Dust (2005), Watching the Spring Festival (2008), and Metaphysical Dog, and a Pulitzer finalist for Desire, Watching the Spring Festival, and Music Like Dirt (2002), this win must have been sweet—even if, referencing a quote about Maria Callas, he said he wanted his poems to read as if one were biting into a lemon. Bidart explained that he had been in the offing for an award so many times that he has just kept adding paragraphs to the same speech, adding ruefully, “I wish what I just said was fiction.”
By coming prepared with an acceptance speech, Bidart set himself apart from the evening’s other winners, all of whom walked shell-shocked to the podium without notes in hand because, as they said, they had entertained no expectation of winning. The best news for the audience was that every winner was present, compared with last year’s awards, when winners were thin on the floor. Fiction winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah, Knopf) summed up the general feeling by declaring that she was “ridiculously happy,” and her observation that she was honored simply to have appeared on the finalist list—especially with her beloved teacher Alice McDermott—exemplified the sense of literary legacy that belongs to the 40-year-old NBCC’s history.
The NBCC also looks forward, anticipating how book criticism will play out in the future, nicely proved by Franco Moretti’s criticism win for Distant Reading (Verso). An Italian scholar/critic who founded the Stanford Literary Lab, which offers quantitative, digitized readings of texts, Moretti encourages us to back off from the page and look at literature more broadly with the help of contemporary software. Poking fun at his English-language skills in a light accent, Moretti emphasized that all the book’s essays were written in English, which meant that, “deprived of nuance, I had one strategy: clarity.” The judges obviously got his message loud and clear.
Amy Wilentz won the Autobiography Award for Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti (S. & S.), a pungent account of that torn nation—and her love for it—that draws on 20 years of reporting and two years of living there. Sheri Fink won the Nonfiction Award for Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown), which examines in harrowing detail the life-and-death issues faced by staff at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina cut it off from the rest of the world. Both winners cited stern moral issues in their acceptance speeches—Wilentz the problem of predatory reporting and ineffective international aid in Haiti and Fink the question whether exceptional circumstances call for exceptions to moral rules or an enhanced commitment to them. And both thanked the locales of their respective book as they spoke.
Winner of the Biography Award for Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale Univ.), Leo Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, Emeritus, Harvard, said that after years spent writing books for academic specialists, to risk writing for a general audience felt like “jumping off a cliff.” His book gracefully allows for the mysteries and complications surrounding Swift, that enduring satirist.
Along with these book awards, the NBCC offered a new award this year: the John Leonard Prize, chosen by the membership at large for a first book in any genre and named after a founding member of the NBCC. As his widow, Sue Leonard, noted in her introduction, naming the prize for Leonard is appropriate because he was a “generous critic” who championed rising authors, and, significantly, the prize connects the NBCC’s past efforts to celebrate the very best writing with the literary future. Winner Anthony Marra, whose A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth: Crown) dissects civil war in Chechnya in clear, vital language, expressed the hope that the rest of his career would live up the complexity and depth suggested by the name the prize carried.
The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, 84-year-old Rolando Hinojosa-Smith is noted not just for his fiction, essays, and mentoring of younger writers but for “putting Mexican American literature on the cultural map,” said introducer Dagoberto Gilb, an award-winning author in his own right. Katherine A. Powers, who made a name for herself by writing for the Boston Globe and now writes for the Barnes and Noble Review, won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Making the distinction between literary criticism and book reviewing, Powers declared her commitment to the latter, which serves the purpose of alerting readers to interesting books. As does this year’s list of NBCC award winners.