On Thursday, March 16, at the New School in New York City, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) announced the recipients of its book awards for publishing year 2016. As with last November’s National Book Awards, a sense of political urgency hung over the proceedings. Michelle Dean, awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, set the tone by arguing that “what a writer is supposed to do is pay attention,” particularly to worldwide suffering and the role of power in society. Distinguished Canadian author/activist Margaret Atwood, who received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, cemented these sentiments by proclaiming “Never has democracy felt so challenged.”
The impulse to social engagement extended to the books themselves. Expanded from an op-ed in the Washington Post, criticism winner Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury USA) portrays white America’s repeated angry resistance whenever African Americans advance. Nonfiction winner Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown), also an LJ Best Book and winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, highlights homelessness in America by chronicling landlords and their struggling tenants in Milwaukee. As Desmond explained in his acceptance speech, “The majority of poor people in this country spend nearly half of what they have on housing costs, and the evictions are coursing through our cities, acting like a cause and not just a consequence of poverty.” Thanking the people of Milwaukee, he added that the award was “an affirmation of their lives.”
Louise Erdrich carried on her highly regarded exploration of Native American life with fiction winner LaRose (Harper), the story of two families dealing with a child’s accidental killing, and also carried on the spirit of the evening in her acceptance speech. “I am happy to be in a room full of searchers. Let us all be fiery and dangerous about truth,” she proclaimed. Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine, also won an NBCC award.
Erdrich went on to praise the NBCC Emerging Critics Fellowships, which aims to identify and nurture the best young critics and whose first recipients were announced at the ceremony. Of young people, she said, “We need your spirit,” an observation that might extend to Yaa Gyasi, whose Homegoing (Knopf) received the John Leonard Prize, awarded by membership vote to an outstanding first book in any genre. Gyasi’s far-reaching novel extends from 18th-century Ghana to the African American experience of slavery.
Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright: Norton), which won the biography honors, expands our understanding of an iconic author by clarifying her frustrations as a woman and a mother trying to make her mark as a writer in mid-20th century America. “I’m happy that Shirley Jackson is getting this recognition,” observed Franklin from the stage.
Autobiography winner Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Knopf) clarifies the joys of geobiology and the challenges of being a woman scientist. Currently working in Norway, Jahren was blocked from attending by the snowstorm that hit the Northeast 48 hours before the ceremony, which she said in letter read by her editor, Knopf vice president and editorial director Robin Desser, “hurt worse” than missing her chance for front-row seats at a Thompson Twins concert in her youth, also owing to snow.
Finally, poetry winner Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons (Farrar) builds from sometimes fraught memories of a Jamaican childhood to take on a larger world of greed and violence in condensed, beautifully complex language. There are moments of desolate tenderness, too, as when the poet imagines spotting his father in crowd. Like all good writing, Hutchison’s embraces the personal as well as the political, which he emphasized by dedicating his award to the grandmother who encouraged him to write.
The same can be said of Erdrich’s or Gyasi’s address of culturally weighty issues through family or Desmond’s empathetic treatment of all parties involved in eviction. If, as Atwood said in a speech often directly addressing the critics, “there are places on earth where to be caught reading you–or even me–would incur a severe penalty,” this year’s NBCC winners are to be valued not just for their fighting spirit but for the bracing roundness and individuality of their vision.