Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (Harper), a mystical novel about an accidental shooting among Native American families, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction at a ceremony held at the New School in New York City on Thursday night. The nonfiction prize went to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown), a meticulously researched chronicle of the grim impact of housing evictions on the poor in Milwaukee.
Cited for its ruminations on memory and childhood, Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) won the poetry prize. The award for criticism was presented to Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury), which has been praised for its powerful critique of white America’s systematic resistance to African American social advancement.
The autobiography award was presented to Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Knopf) for its witty recollection of a life in science; and the biography prize was awarded to Ruth Franklin for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright), a graceful and engaging portrait of the life and mind of the celebrated author and mother.
News of the Trump administration’s plans to defund the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as the National Endowment for the Arts was mentioned with obvious concern during the evening. Another topic that the current administration has brought to the fore, immigration, was a theme of the night. In their acceptance speeches, several recepients of awards and of NBCC special awards, spoke about the cultural legacy of immigration to America.
Novelist Yaa Gyasi, who received the John Leonard Prize for her novel Homegoing (Knopf), talked in her acceptance speech about her immigrant parents who, she said, "arrived in this country with little more than the clothes on their backs.”
Critic Michelle Dean, winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, said that it is the critic's job “to pay attention. It’s the only real thing we have to fight power.”
Novelist Margaret Atwood, winner of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, received a standing ovation from the crowd when she was introduced. But she also spurred the crowd to laughter when she reminded them that she is Canadian and "just happy to be here because they let me cross the border."
Atwood said she was deeply honored to receive the award and "in awe" of what critics do. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve done as a writer, because you can’t just make stuff up.”
On a more serious note, Atwood said the work of the critic reminded her of being a blood donor. She compared the role of free expression and literature in the political life of democracy to the life sustaining capacity of the blood bank. "You give blood so it will be there when it’s needed," she said. "You are part of the barrier against authoritarian control. Keep at your craft."