When the great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood took the stage in New York City on March 16 to accept a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle, she opened with a mordant joke: She was just glad that she'd been allowed across the border.
"I was asking someone, should I leave my phone and computer at home? And they said, 'It depends on how many books you want to sell. If you get arrested, it will be a big news story.' "
Atwood's best-known book, The Handmaid's Tale, a disturbing dystopian tale about a society where women are enslaved, has had a huge surge in sales since the election of Donald Trump.
In her acceptance speech, Atwood told the audience that "what you do as critics is sorely needed. Never has American democracy felt so challenged. Never have there been so many attempts — from so many sides of the political spectrum — to shout down the voices of others, to obfuscate and confuse, to twist and manipulate, and to vilify reliable and trusted publications. ... As independent critics, you are part of the barrier standing between authoritarian control and a pluralistic and open democracy."
She wasn't the only winner to speak of writing as a form of resistance. Indeed, all of the awards went to books that deal with subjects that have a political side, whether subtle or overt.
As a member of the NBCC's 24-person board, serving my last year before being term-limited, I helped select the winners for the 2016 publishing year from a field of 30 finalists whose books were so deeply impressive it was hard to choose among them.
Carol Anderson, a professor of African-American studies at Emory University, received the award for a book of criticism for White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, a searing expose of systematic racism in American history. She thanked her parents, who, she said, "came from nothing but gave me the fight, and the ability to see that we could be so much more."
Nonfiction winner Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, also deals with urgent issues of race and class. In it, the Harvard University sociology professor writes an often heartbreaking narrative history of landlords and tenants caught in a seemingly inescapable cycle.
Louise Erdrich received the fiction award for her stunning novel LaRose. The story of two Native American families coping with the devastating death of a child touches, as do all of her novels, on the collision of cultures and the meaning of family. She said to the other writers in the audience, "The truth is being assaulted all over the world. ... Let us be fierce and dangerous about the truth."
Two of the winning books are about women forging careers against great odds. Ruth Franklin received the biography award for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, the story of how the author of The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House struggled to reconcile the demands of writing with those of being a wife and mother in mid 20th century America.
Hope Jahren took the autobiography award for Lab Girl, her engaging, witty and often surprising memoir about her life as a paleobiologist, a field not always welcoming to women. (Jahren was the only author not on hand to receive her award; she's conducting a research project in Norway.)
Immigration was a subject in several of the award-winning books. Poetry winner Ishion Hutchinson writes eloquently of childhood, family and memory in House of Lords and Commons, a collection of poems that revolve around relationships with his grandmother and his native country, Jamaica.
Yaa Gyasi, whose debut novel about enslaved Africans and their descendants, Homegoing, won the John Leonard Prize for best first book, thanked her parents, immigrants from Ghana who came to the United States, she said, with "nothing but the clothes on their backs and the children in their arms."
Michelle Dean received the Nona Balakian Award Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, given to an NBCC member, for her reviews in the Guardian, the New Republic and other publications. In her speech, Dean said, "What a writer is supposed to do is pay attention. A good novelist pays attention to his characters. A good biographer pays attention to the documents before her. A good critic pays close attention to the thing she's brought to evaluate.
"Paying attention is the only thing that guarantees insight. It is the only real weapon we have against power, too. You can't fight things you can't actually see."