I am two years into my second term as a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and each year that I've served I have been proud of the books we selected for the NBCC's annual awards.
This year's winning books are, as always, beautifully written, deeply intelligent and freshly original. What's striking about these six, all published in 2015, is how timely they are. Every one deals with a topic that is of crucial importance in American culture today.
The NBCC awards are the only major book prizes whose winners are selected by critics, the 24 board members elected by the organization's more than 700 members.
The main criterion for selecting the books is literary quality, and when the board sat down on March 17 to winnow 30 finalists in six categories, that was our goal.
We found that the books that rose to the top for their craft and art were very much of the moment. In different ways, these six books focus on how we struggle with race and class, how we define gender and feminism, how we die of addiction and live upon the earth.
The awards were presented on March 17 at the New School in New York.
The prize for fiction went to Paul Beatty's astonishing novel The Sellout. Evoking everyone from Richard Pryor to Joseph Heller, it's a scalding satire on race, politics and popular culture. Its narrator, born and raised in an all-black California town called Dickens, finds himself owning a slave (who happens to be a former Little Rascals actor) — a situation that lands him before the Supreme Court. This outrageous material could easily have run off the rails, but Beatty's control is dazzling and unforgettable.
Margo Jefferson takes a different , but equally fascinating, approach to race and class in Negroland: A Memoir, the winner for autobiography. Born into a privileged black family, daughter of a doctor and a socialite, Jefferson grew up always striving to meet a complex set of expectations imposed from within that culture and from the outside. A former theater critic for the New York Times, Jefferson writes elegantly about performance and identity.
The criticism award went to Maggie Nelson's bold, genre-bending memoir The Argonauts, which takes readers on a deep dive into love, pregnancy and parenting in a family where gender is a fluid concept. It's a highly original book in which Nelson opens up for the reader her own thinking and critical processes to wrestle with feminism, sexual identity, marriage, child raising and more in her own life.
The winning book in biography, Charlotte Gordon's Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley, might not seem timely, given that its two subjects lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. But Gordon paints an indelible dual portrait of Wollstonecraft, whose manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a foundational document of feminism, and Shelley, whose influential novel Frankenstein is often overshadowed by her celebrity marriage to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Gordon's research reveals two women battling not only misogyny but the challenge of combining family with career — in their day even more difficult than in ours.
The recipient of the nonfiction prize was Sam Quinones for his extraordinary book Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic. In a remarkable feat of reporting and storytelling, Quinones takes the reader from the once-idyllic Ohio town of Portsmouth to the entrepreneurial Mexican village of Xalisco, to Appalachian "pill mills" and the labs and executive offices of Big Pharma to explain how heroin addiction, once thought to be an affliction linked to poverty and race, is now devastating white middle-class America.
The poetry prize went to Ross Gay's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, an aptly named collection that celebrates the values of community and family, and the lessons and joys of living close to nature. His lyrical, exuberant poems tie his work to that of the man who received the NBCC's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: novelist, poet and essayist Wendell Berry.
Berry was introduced by actor Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), who co-produced a documentary about the writer called The Seer. Offerman likened his task to introducing a natural force: "Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Mississippi River."
Berry spoke of gratitude and of community, calling himself a writer from "the periphery. ... the country itself, the farms, forests, and mines, from which the nation lives." Berry's work, like that of the six book award winners, belongs not on the periphery but in the center.
For video of the NBCC awards ceremony, as well as video of a reading by 23 of the 30 finalists held the night before the awards, go to bookcritics.org.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.