When the members of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors shut ourselves up in a room to choose the winners of our annual awards—better bring snacks because we’re not leaving until we’re finished!—we’re always careful to consider only the books in front of us. We don’t say things like, “This book has already won other awards so it doesn’t need ours,” or “We’ve given too many prizes to books from big presses so it’s time for a small press book,” or even “We don’t have enough books by women or people of color, so let’s make sure the next award doesn’t go to a white man.” Every book deserves to be considered on its own merits.
Yet our awards (especially in the last few years) tend to honor a diverse group of books, by men and women of all races and sexual preferences—and they’re usually published by a diverse group of presses, too. The way to get a result like that is by casting a wide net; the 24 board members make a conscious effort to read beyond the most-hyped books (though of course we read those too, and sometime they even win) and to always keep in mind that exhilarating, enlightening literary experiences come in all different kinds of packages.
This year’s poetry award went to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf), a book so singular that we made it a finalist in two different categories, poetry and criticism. Marilynne Robinson won the fiction prize for Lila (FSG); we would never disqualify a book that “offers us yet another miraculous and momentous American portrait,” as board member Jane Ciabattari wrote on our website, just because Robinson’s earlier book, Gilead, had already won the prize.
This was my last round of deliberations as president of the NBCC. I’ll miss the heady experience of spending a day locked up with 23 other reviewers debating the best books of the year and look forward to seeing what they come up with next. —L.M.
Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.