National Book Critics Circle Gets It Right With Awards for Paul Beatty, Margo Jefferson, Maggie Nelson

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“Welcome to better living through criticism,” riffed Gregg Barrios, National Book Critics Circle board member and announcer of the the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, the second award given at last night’s NBCC Awards in New York. It wouldn’t be the last time A.O. Scott’s new book was wryly invoked. The NBCC is, after all, a body of critics. And last night, with a run of well placed nominees and deserving winners, the critics proved their worth to literary culture.

The evening’s first prize, the John Leonard Award for First Books, named after one of the organization’s founding critics, went to Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night of Fiestas, a book of short fiction. Quade delivered a sharp speech that acknowledged the award’s namesake — Leonard had an impressive eye for new writing — and implored writers in the audience to “write toward the pain,” a credo she borrowed from a mentor.

Things moved quickly from there. Barrios announced Carlos Lozada, associate editor and nonfiction book critic for the Washington Post, as the winner of the Balakian citation. Lozada spoke of a critical culture in which books and their reviews could be newsworthy, “at the center of culture.” The idea of writing with or against the centers of culture would soon become the theme of the night.

Last year’s awarding of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award to Toni Morrison, America’s only living Nobel Prize winner — who gave a moving speech about the urgent need for critical writing in American culture — was a hard act to follow. But thankfully this year’s award went to Wendell Berry, the prolific and confrontational novelist, poet, and essayist whose career has been devoted to “literature of the principled life.”

The award was delivered by actor Nick Offerman, who has produced a documentary about Berry. In an eloquent, moving, and humorous speech, Offerman cited the author’s decision to return to his farm in Kentucky to write (rather than bank on his early reputation by moving to the city) as a crucial moment in his career. Upon delivering the award, Offerman nodded to Berry’s prodigiousness, his status as a towering figure among so-called provincial readers. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “I give you the Mississippi River.”

In a tremendous acceptance speech, Berry recalled an early critic who praised his writing as exemplary of “the periphery speaking to the center.” Presumably the critic meant that Berry was unafraid of the consequences of challenging the integrity of America’s ruling class or its media elite. In the speech, Berry promptly flipped the terms by pointing out that without the periphery — the heartland, the provinces — there would be no center. He ended on a note of immense gratitude — another theme of the evening. “If I thanked all the people I want to thank,” he said, “I would disappear.”

The NBCC poetry award went to Ross Gay, one of the year’s literary underdogs, also a National Book Award nominee, for his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, an immensely deserving work about the poet’s care for an orchard in Bloomington, Indiana. Gay’s speech, echoing the title of the book, was energetically gratitudinous.

In a rousing moment of relief that provoked hoots and cheers from the audience, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one last year’s best books, was awarded for criticism. Upon winning the award, Nelson, following a poem by Dana Ward, thanked the “many-gendered mothers of my heart.”

The award for autobiography went to Margo Jefferson’s brilliant memoir Negroland, an exemplar of the form that will be read for ages. In her speech, Jefferson, a longtime critic for the New York Times, celebrated the present as “an extraordinary time for all the varieties and permutations of nonfiction.” In this respect, she referred to herself as a “magpie” and “chronicler, elegist, dissenter” — words of self-assessment that could be extended to many of the evening’s winners.

Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, a book that took a decade to write, won the award for biography. Gordon’s acceptance speech, in another example of the evening’s tendency toward chronicling and dissent, countered the iniquities committed against women from the 18th century to the present.

The newsworthiness of Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which took home the nonfiction prize, is only now dawning on broader America. After celebrating fellow nominee and former LA Times colleague Jill Leovy, Quinones spoke of his time chronicling crime and drugs in Los Angeles and Mexico. But it was the tragedy of the American periphery that provoked one of the evening’s most memorable lines. “Heroin,” Quinones said, “is an expression of the values we have fostered in this country for years.”

The triumph of the evening came with the announcement of the NBCC’s fiction prize. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, one of the most astonishing and hilarious satires in American fiction, was finally given its due. Beatty, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a sweater, pretended to faint when his name was called.

In an evening that honored principled literature, that waged a battle against the center from the periphery, that questioned the sanctity of prevailing exceptionalisms, Beatty managed to lampoon and celebrate it all without trying too hard. “Thanks,” he said, as he arrived at the podium. “I definitely don’t have a message.” It’s hard to imagine that anyone minded.