The National Book Critics Circle’s annual gala awards ceremony was a virtual affair once again this year. The event honoring the best books published in 2021 began early Thursday evening with readings by the finalists in each of seven categories, followed by the actual awards ceremony.

Anthony Veasna So, who died in December 2020 of an accidental drug overdose at age 28, posthumously received the John Leonard Prize for a first book for his short story collection Afterparties (Ecco), which was published eight months after his death. While the NBCC fiction prize was awarded posthumously to Roberto Bolaño in 2010 and the criticism prize to Ellen Willis in 2014, this is the first time that the John Leonard prize has been awarded posthumously.

As previously announced, the recipient of the $1,000 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing was Merve Emre, a contributing writer at the New Yorker and associate professor at Oxford University. Percival Everett received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and the inaugural Toni Morrison Achievement Award, established by the NBCC in 2021 to honor institutions that have made lasting and meaningful contributions to book culture, was given to the Cave Canem Foundation, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

David Varno, NBCC board president (and PW reviews editor) kicked off the proceedings with a recitation of the steps the NBCC has taken this past year to make the organization more inclusive for its members. “We’ve accomplished so much this year,” Varno said, “”We’ve developed two new awards, including the annual Toni Morrison achievement award. Also this year, we’ve amended our bylaws to more center the voices of more marginalized critics, including critics of color, and LGBTQ, and those with disabilities.” Other initiatives include developing a budget to compensate presenters at events and producing programming on DEI issues.

The Past Informs the Present

Judging from the audience chat, the ceremony was a roller coaster of emotions as speakers emphasized the importance of human connections and the impact of the past upon the present, especially within marginalized communities, beginning with the evening’s presentation of the John Leonard Prize, the only NBCC award to be determined by the organization’s membership, rather than the board. In her acceptance of So's award for Afterparties, Samantha So Lamb thanked his publisher for “wrapping around” her family, adding, "My brother is a super star and our team made sure of it. I'm grateful that my brother shared his voice and uplifted the Cambodian-American and the LGBTQ community before he passed."

The next award recipient, Emre, who won the Nona Balakian Citation, admitted that she had been “distracted” from writing a speech focused upon the role and responsibilities of book critics by two events: strikes by U.K. educators protesting cuts to their pensions, and layoffs of book critics working for U.S. publications—including Jo Livingstone, last year’s Balakian Citation recipient, laid off from their job at the New Republic.

“This is only the most recent example of the ongoing push to replace staff writers with freelancers to drive down the costs incurred by struggling magazines,” she said, “In my mind, these two events are deeply related. Both speak to the devaluation of the kinds of intellectual work that scholars and critics perform. This devaluation has been particularly acute in mainstream literary and cultural criticism, in literary studies, and in the humanities more broadly.”

Thus, Emre said, she was donating 50% of her $1,000 prize to sponsor membership dues for the freelance journalists union, and the other 50% to the “fighting fund” maintained by the U.K.’s university and college union, adding, “I would urge all critics and editors with secure jobs and with prominent perches from which to speak to do what they can to support or to continue to support precarious laborers in our industries.”

Other award recipients made the connection between their work and the current cultural and political climate, some subtly, some explicitly. “When we write about ourselves,” Jeremy Atherton Lin said during his acceptance speech for Gay Bar, which explores the impact of gay bars and hangouts upon LGBTQ culture, “we’re writing about what we think came before us. We’re a part of the stuff that came before. Constructive and attentive criticism is such an important thing for the way that we see one another and see the future generations.”

Rebecca Donner, who'd written a biography of her great-aunt, Mildred Harnack, a member of the German resistance movement during World War II, noted that a few years after Harnack moved to Germany from Wisconsin, she witnessed Germany "swiftly progress from democracy to fascist dictatorship.” She and others resisted the Nazis, Donner said, “The story of their audacious courage serves as an inspiration to us all during this fraught time in the world."

Clint Smith, the penultimate award recipient of the evening, helped conclude the proceedings on an inspiring note that underscored the impact of books upon both the present and future generations of readers. He wrote How the Word is Passed, he explained, because he wanted to write “the sort of book I needed when I was 16 and sitting in my American history class. A book that would help me understand why my city, my state, my country looked the way that it did today. All I wanted growing up was the language and the toolkit and the history to make sense of the world around me. And I hope this book can play one small role in giving other people the language they need in helping people remember what happened.”

Little, Brown was a major winner last night, with three of its authors scooping up awards. Graywolf Press also scored big. Not only did Graywolf author Diane Seuss snap up the poetry award, but Percival Everett paid tribute to the Minneapolis indie during his acceptance of a lifetime achievement award, praising publisher Fiona McCrae and her colleagues for the respect accorded to their authors.

"She understands my work," Everett said of McCrae, his publisher for the past 27 years, "The press understands me. I've never had a marketing meeting in my life. And they have allowed me to write the kinds of books that I do. That is to say, the books that don't sell very many."

“I couldn't be more delighted by last night's stirring celebration of book criticism and literature," Varno told PW, "from Merve Emre’s call to action in support of fellow critics, journalists, and academics to the moving speeches from our wonderful winners. Toni Morrison once called the NBCC a 'wild faculty,' and I’m grateful to be part of this group of critics that landed on such a fierce and wide-ranging body of winners, including Melissa Febos’s mixed-genre meditation on a queer girlhood, Jeremy Atherton Lin’s autobiography of gay bars, Clint Smith’s study of plantations and monuments shaped by the legacy of white supremacy and slavery, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s monumental work of Black feminism, Diane Seuss’s once-in-a-decade collection of poetry, Rebecca Donner’s page-turner biography, and of course Anthony Veasna So’s crushingly promising debut story collection."

The 2021 NBCC winners are as follows:

Autobiography: Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin (Little, Brown)

Biography: All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler by Rebecca Donner (Little, Brown)

Criticism: Girlhood by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury)

Fiction: The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Harper)

Nonfiction: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (Little, Brown)

Poetry: frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss (Graywolf)