Last night, the auditorium at the New School in New York City was packed with the crème-de-la-crème of writers, agents, editors, and publishers as the National Book Critics Circle announced the winners of its awards for the best books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, criticism, biography, and autobiography published in 2016.
Heads craned to see Zadie Smith, elegant in her signature turban, walking to a seat at the front of the room, near where Margaret Atwood sat with her publisher, Nan Talese, and her longtime agent, Phoebe Larmore. Ms. Atwood received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, which she said was something of a mixed blessing: “Why did I only get one lifetime?” she asked, her eyes twinkling behind her glasses. “Where did that lifetime go?” Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has had a recent resurgence in sales, prompted in part by a television series based on the book which Hulu will begin streaming in April. Atwood peppered her speech with her celebrated wit: reflecting on her early experience as a book critic, she quipped that when reviewing books by men, “It helps if they’re dead—they can’t get back at you.”
The John Leonard prize for best book in any genre went to Yaa Gyasi for Homegoing, her historical novel about the legacy of slavery upon the descendants of two sisters born in 18th-century Ghana. One marries an Englishman and lives a life of privilege; the other is sold into slavery and sent to the American South. Ms. Gyasi, who was herself born in Ghana, thanked her parents in her acceptance speech. “They came to this country,” she said, “with little more than the clothes on their backs and the children in their arms.”
Louise Erdrich was awarded the fiction prize for her novel LaRose, the story of how “the phosphorus of grief” affects two Native American families after the accidental shooting of a child. Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, Ann Patchett’s Commonweath, and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time were finalists for the award. Ms. Erdrich seemed genuinely surprised to have won, wiping away tears and saying that “It didn’t seem possible” that she would win “among such dramatically wonderful novels.” Her acceptance speech, like many of the authors’, had a markedly political cast. She noted the number of young people in the audience and beseeched them to fight against the “great rush of deceit” in the news and “dig into” the truth.
Historian Carol Anderson’s bestseller, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, took the award for criticism. Ms. Anderson, who is Charles Howard Candler Professor of African-American Studies at Emory University, described how after writing an op-ed in the Washington Post she received a call from an agent, who urged her to push forward and write a book on her thesis that the “trigger for white rage is always black advancement.”
The prize for poetry went to Ishion Hutchinson for House of Lords and Commons. Mr. Hutchinson, who grew up in Jamaica and now teaches at Cornell, writes about his homeland, and sometimes, its contrast with his life in the United States, as in his poem “The Orator.” “A bore/ was harping in dead metaphor/ the horror of colonial heritage./ I sank in the dark, hemorrhaged./ There I remembered the peninsula/ a of my sea, the breeze opening the water/ to no book but dusk; no electricity,/ just stars pulsing over shanties.”
The prize for autobiography went to Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, a geobiologist who wrote about her development as a scientist, and the relationship between people and plants. “Each beginning is the end of waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable,” she wrote in Lab Girl. Jahren, who is currently conducting research in Norway, could not travel to New York for the awards ceremony. Robin Desser, her editor at Knopf, read her speech to the audience. In it Jahren joked that she had not been so upset to miss an event since she had to skip a Thompson Twins concert as a teenager and stayed up all night crying.
Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, won for biography. Jackson was most notably the author of “The Lottery,” a short story first published by the New Yorker magazine in 1948. Though her work was still in print, it was Franklin’s biography that brought her back into the public eye. Franklin argued that Jackson’s “body of work constitutes nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era. And the stories she tells form a powerful counter-narrative to ‘the feminine mystique,’ revealing the unhappiness and instability behind the housewife’s sleek veneer of competence.”
Michelle Dean received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Dean writes frequently for the Guardian, The New Republic, and Salon; she is also the author of the nonfiction book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. Dean, a Canadian, said ruefully that criticism is “the application of literary intelligence to the question of power—it’s kind of out of style.”
The nonfiction award went to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Mr. Desmond, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, thanked, among others, the poor Milwaukee families whose struggles with landlords and the law he had researched for the book. “This award is an affirmation of their graceful refusal to be reduced to their hardship.”
John Leonard, Nona Balakian, and Ivan Sandrof founded the National Book Critics Circle in 1974 as a way to expand the reach and discussion of the famed Algonquin Round Table. Some 700 book critics are now members. The board of the NBCC read all 30 finalists for the prizes and vote on the winners on the day the awards are announced. Among the writers honored in previous years are E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, Susan Sontag for On Photography, Toni Morrison for Song of Solomon, and James Merrill for The Changing Light at Sandover. Paul Beatty was the 2015 fiction winner for his novel The Sellout.
To see the full list of 2016 finalists in general nonfiction, autobiography, biography, criticism, and poetry, click here.
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