There were several surprises at the annual awards ceremony of the National Book Critics Circle in New York City March 11. Dark horse candidates won in both biography and general nonfiction, and in fiction Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was eclipsed by a posthumous award for German-born novelist W.G. Sebald, killed in an automobile accident in England last December.
As NBCC president Elizabeth Taylor noted in her opening remarks, the 750 members of the organization are the "working stiffs" of the literary world, and their 25 nominations in five categories represent their professional views of the choice set before them in the awards process, an attempt to "glorify writers and writing."
The very first award announced in the streamlined ceremony, for Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House), was a controversial one, since some librarians believe the author has been too hard on them, while others feel his account of the wholesale transfer of valuable materials to digital databases, and the destruction of the originals, exemplifies a serious impoverishment of the culture. Baker was "surprised, pleased and moved," saying he had begun as a novelist but had been pulled into becoming a "library activist."
The award for criticism, to Martin Amis for The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971 2000 (Talk Miramax) was accepted very much in absentia, since neither the author (traveling in Ecuador) nor his publisher were present. In the event, his agent, Andrew Wylie, made the first of two appearances at the podium to accept, briefly, for him.
The poetry award was certainly not controversial, going for the second time (he also won 10 years ago) to Albert Goldbarth, this time for Saving Lives, published by Ohio State University Press. Goldbarth said he was "deeply gratified," but added mischievously that when he won 10 years ago the audience had vowed to buy more poetry titles; he had checked his sales since then, and "someone lied."
The award in biography/autobiography was another surprise, going to British biographer Adam Sisman for Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This was accepted by the house's Jonathan Galassi on behalf of the author, who had sent him an e-mail saying, "in the very unlikely event that I win," he felt himself very lucky, particularly in view of the quality of the competition.
NBA winner Jonathan Franzen was passed by this time around, as had been generally anticipated, but in favor of a rather unexpected winner: the late W.G. Sebald for Austerlitz (Random House). The award was accepted on his behalf by editor Scott Moyers and (again) agent Andrew Wylie. Moyers said the author's death had been "a loss not easy to comprehend or bear," and he also paid tribute to New Directions for having launched the author in this country by publishing his first three titles.
Introducing the winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, David Kipen of the San Francisco Chronicle appealed to newspaper managements nationwide to give more space to their book sections and also to publishers to support them with advertising; in many parts of the country, he said, these sections have been "gutted" and were now an endangered species. The winner, Michael Gorra, said that at first he had tried to be simply prescriptive as a critic, but that was no longer the done thing. He said that in reviewing he tries not to use superlatives, or to provide quotes that are easily excerpted, but to place the works reviewed in a context.
The winner of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, Jason Epstein, late of Random House, was hailed for his major publishing innovations, not quite one in each of the last five decades: the launching of trade paperbacks with Anchor Books; the start, with colleagues, of the New York Review of Books; the launch of the Library of America; and the birth of the "premature" Readers Catalog as an aid to ordering books from a central source before online ordering was generally available.
Epstein said his innovations had been "as nothing compared to those that await you, as a new generation." He declared that publishing was on the edge of "a paradigm shift" that could be as dramatic as anything since the birth of print 500 years ago. The technology to make books widely available in digital form worldwide, and to draw on the resources of a century of backlist titles, was available now, he said, and was only delayed by publisher "inertia." There would come a time when the widespread availability of all titles in all languages would once again enable backlist to sustain the business, as it has in the past. The thought of such access to all books, at a fraction of the cost of today's printed ones, was "a staggering prospect," both culturally and commercially and "an irresistible one."