National book critics awards honor voices less often heard

The National Book Critics Circle’s 2020 awards emphasize diversity as well as literary quality.
Maggie O'Farrell received the National Book Critics Circle's 2020 fiction prize for her novel "Hamnet."
Maggie O'Farrell received the National Book Critics Circle's 2020 fiction prize for her novel "Hamnet." [ MURDO MACLEOD | Murdo MacLeod ]
Published March 26, 2021|Updated March 31, 2021

The National Book Critics Circle has been presenting book awards for almost 50 years. Thursday night, for the first time, it presented them virtually.

It was a lively and sometimes moving ceremony, combining recorded and live segments. Before the awards, which honored books published during 2020, almost all of the 30 finalists appeared for readings from their books.

If the prizes had a recurring theme, it was the recognition of voices less often heard.

I’m a member of the 21-person board that selected most of this year’s prize recipients, in a Zoom call that ran just short of seven hours. We chose from 30 finalists, all extraordinary books, in six categories. A seventh book award, for best first book, is voted on among the group’s membership of about 600. The organization also presents an award for criticism written by one of its members and a lifetime achievement award.

The awards are the only American book prizes chosen by critics.

The winner for autobiography was Cathy Park Hong for Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which combines personal essays and cultural criticism. In her acceptance, Hong dedicated her win to the eight women, six of them Asian American, who were murdered earlier this month in the Atlanta area: “Say their names.”

In biography, the prize went to Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley. It recounts the fascinating life of a 19th century woman who moved from a small fishing village to Edo at the time that city was transforming into the modern Tokyo.

Nicole R. Fleetwood won the award in the criticism category for her groundbreaking study of art created by prisoners, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

The fiction prize winner was Maggie O’Farrell for her novel Hamnet, a transcendent and gorgeously written study of grief and art whose main characters are the wife and young son of William Shakespeare.

Related: Read a review of "Hamnet."

In Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire, the winner for nonfiction, Tom Zoellner vividly illuminates a little-known chapter in the history of colonialism and slavery.

Poetry winner Francine J. Harris writes compellingly of the complex interplay among sexuality, race and power in the poems in Here Is the Sweet Hand.

Raven Leilani's "Luster" won the NBCC's 2020 award for best first novel.
Raven Leilani's "Luster" won the NBCC's 2020 award for best first novel. [ Nina Subin ]

The John Leonard Prize for a first book in any genre was awarded to Raven Leilani for her novel Luster, which the judges called a “compulsive” read about a young woman who is “a wonderfully depicted swirl of painting, video games, and longing.”

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in reviewing went to member Jo Livingstone, a culture staff writer at the New Republic, whose reviews won for their wide-ranging intelligence, insight and wit.

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This year’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award (a prize that may be given to individuals or literary organizations) honored the Feminist Press. Now in its 50th year, the press has published works by such writers as Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Anita Hill, Grace Paley and Barbara Ehrenreich. The Feminist Press mission statement reads, “Celebrating our legacy, we lift up insurgent and marginalized voices from around the world to build a more just future.”

It’s a mission this year’s NBCC book awards shared.