The 2023 National Book Critics Circle Awards were presented on March 23 at the organization's first in-person ceremony since the pandemic began, once again held at the New School in New York City. The awards, which honor books published in 2022, are among the only literary honors in the country decided by working book critics. The NBCC was founded in 1974, and comprises more than 600 critics and editors.
The first award of the evening was the inaugural Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Prize, which went to Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov and translated by Boris Dralyuk (Deep Vellum). The John Leonard Prize honoring a debut book in any genre, now in its 10th year, went to Morgan Talty for his story collection Night of the Living Rez (Tin House). Talty was unable to attend the ceremony because his first child was recently born, but when the award was announced, Tin House publicity director Becky Kraemer called Talty, took to the stage, and put the author—who was sitting on the couch with his newborn—on speakerphone to express his thanks.
Poet Joy Harjo received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. The three-term poet laureate of the United States and member of the Muscogee Nation recalled her time at the Institute of American Indian Arts, stressing how important meeting and reading other Indigenous poets was to her as she came into her own as a writer. Citing the accolades earned by such contemporary Indigenous poets as Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, and N. Scott Momaday, she expressed feeling heartened by the evolution of the U.S. literary canon, but acknowledged that significant challenges remain, mentioning that a Muscogee educator in Harjo's native Oklahoma had recently asked for her help starting a "book club for banned books."
Writer Jennifer Wilson, a critic specializing in Russian literature, received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. In her speech, which she mentioned was the first one she had ever given in her life, she noted that she was the first Black woman to receive the award. Former NBCC president and Library Journal editor Barbara Hoffert received the inaugural NBCC Service Award, recognizing extraordinary contributions within the organization.
The Toni Morrison Achievement Award, presented by John Freeman, was given to San Francisco–based independent bookstore-publisher City Lights, which celebrated its 70th anniversary this year. In her acceptance speech, City Lights executive director Elaine Katzenberger expressed her pride in honoring the legacy of founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died in 2021. She concluded her speech with several lines from Ferlinghetti's 2007 poem "Poetry as Insurgent Art."
The final third of the evening was devoted to the highly-anticipated category awards, recognizing the best in poetry, biography, autobiography, criticism, nonfiction, and fiction.
Cynthia Cruz won the poetry award for her collection Hotel Oblivion by (Four Way Books); Four Way director Ryan Murphy accepted the prize on Cruz's behalf.
Similarly, Beverly Gage received the biography prize for G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (Viking), with Gage's editor, Viking v-p and associate publisher Wendy Wolf, accepting the award on her behalf.
Timothy Bewes, a professor at Brown University, took home the criticism prize for his book Free Indirect: The Novel in a Postfictional Age (Columbia University Press), which prize judge Jennie Hann called "an intervention in critical theory that will forever change the way we read."
New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu received the autobiography award for his memoir Stay True (Doubleday), which autobiography committee chair Heather Scott Partington called "a clear-eyed and vulnerable exploration of platonic friendship and lifelong loss." Hsu, who elicited laughs by snapping a photo of the crowd from the stage before accepting his award, delivered his speech while holding in his hand the original notebook in which he began writing the book 25 years ago.
Isaac Butler was the evening's penultimate winner, receiving the nonfiction award for The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act (Bloomsbury). Butler shared in his speech that as a reader and writer, the NBCC award seal on book covers is the one that he values the most.
Finally, Ling Ma, who was not present for the ceremony, received the fiction prize for her short story collection Bliss Montage (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux).
"What a thrill to return to the New School, to applaud and cheer the finalists and winners of this year’s awards," NBCC president Megan Labrise told PW after the ceremony. "The love in the room was palpable."
The 2022 NBCC winners are as follows:
Poetry: Hotel Oblivion by Cynthia Cruz (Four Way)
Biography: G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century by Beverly Gage (Viking)
Criticism: Free Indirect: The Novel in a Postfictional Age by Timothy Bewes (Columbia UP)
Autobiography: Stay True by Hua Hsu (Doubleday)
Nonfiction: The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury)
Fiction: Bliss Montage: Stories by Ling Ma (FSG)