Essay

Critical Mass

Dispatch from the National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony.

by Daniel Nester
My evening begins around the corner from the ceremony at the French restaurant Caf Loup, where the NBCC held its membership luncheon earlier that afternoon. I ask the maitre d’ if this group of active book critics and reviewers, 700 strong from all around the country, were overly critical of their cuisine. “They weren’t a rowdy bunch,” he says. “No thrown bottles or anything.”

When we arrive at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, the 450-seat theater is almost full. Up until last year, James Lipton was taping episodes of Bravo’s kiss-up-fest Inside the Actors Studio here. But no throngs of wide-eyed struggling actors flood the theater tonight, hoping to ask a question of somebody famous. The NBCC awards crowd is well appointed—men in ties and jackets, women in cocktail dresses.

Despite the fancy dress, however, it’s a low-tech event. An 11-by-17-inch printout with “National Book Critics Circle Awards” is taped to the podium. Throughout the evening, PowerPoint slides will announce the categories in 500-point italicized Times New Roman. The nominees’ book covers will be displayed in succession, and then the winner’s cover slide will be shown again as it is announced. This is as high-tech as it will get.

The first official to take the stage is NBCC president Rebecca Miller. There have been some changes this year, Miller says, most notably splitting up the “awkwardly conjoined twins” of biography and the new category, autobiography. “And what a year to do it,” she deadpans. The audience chuckles at this not-so-sly reference to the James Frey affair.

The first winner to the podium is Wyatt Mason, accepting the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. His speech tells of his struggle to learn Hungarian while living in Budapest, its crescendo a scene in a restaurant where, while trying to order milk, he “rather robustly starts to moo.” Everyone sniggers knowingly. I think his point is that writing book reviews is like ordering milk in Budapest. But I might be wrong.

Next up is the winner of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, given this year to a man whom many poets will know, at least by his title: Bill Henderson, founder of the Pushcart Press and editor of the annual Pushcart Prize anthologies. Drake McFeely, president of W. W. Norton, Pushcart’s distributor, introduces Henderson. For me, this begs the question: why not have a journal editor or a fellow small-press publisher do the honors? Just asking.

Henderson’s speech doesn’t adhere to the narrative lede-my-point-is format. Instead, it is the circuitous oratory of one who has been in the wilderness, in this case Maine, for a long time and is suddenly given a bigger stage. It’s refreshing.

“Let me define who small press people are,” he says. “They are, as Russell Banks calls them, ‘royal fools.’” He gives shout-outs to all of those “fools” that have been around even longer than Pushcart’s 30 years: Hudson Review, Paris Review, Triquarterly, and the “granddaddy of them all,” the “filthy rich” Poetry. I make a note to ask for more money for this assignment.

Before he signs off, Henderson has a Peter Finch prophet-of-doom moment straight out of the movie Network. “Just ignore all this electronic nonsense,” he says. “I have a manual typewriter and a phone, and that’s it. The whole thing is going to explode!” Alrighty then.

Eric Miles Williamson, editor of the American Book Review, steps up to the podium to present the award for criticism. John Updike, nominated for his book of essays on American art, is not here. I spot another nominee in the right side aisle—Arthur Danto, whom I recognize from Da Ali G Show.

When the winner’s book is projected on the screen, I’m distracted by the audible hisses behind me. A woman in front of me sinks in her chair. The winner is none other than William Logan, poetry criticism’s Angel of Death himself, who wins for The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin, his third collection of reviews.

These pieces have appeared in various literary journals over the years, and reaction to their alleged mean-spiritedness has rippled though mainstream poetry circles. Williamson calls Logan our era’s “Dr. Johnson, both respected and feared.” There’s a mention of Logan’s “refined taste.” The buzz and hisses continue. I feel oddly proud that the controversial moment of the night turns out to be poetry-related.

I’ve never seen William Logan before. Judging by the reception his reviews have garnered, I’ve imagined him to be a burly, bearded, booming-voiced man, perhaps with a hooked hand to turn pages.

He looks nothing like that. He is skinny with wire-rimmed glasses, sporting a salt-and-pepper middle part combdown. Rather Plain Jane. He’s that mild-mannered neighbor from a suburban childhood with a dark secret. Like, he writes poetry reviews.

Sharon Olds, my former teacher, who took it on the chin from a Logan review just a couple of years ago, sits in the third row. She applauds as Logan approaches the podium. That’s freaking class.

“I was always critical,” Logan says in his speech. “My mother said I refused the breast.”

“Being a critic is not always a pleasant thing,” he continues. He talks about receiving a letter from a poet threatening him with “the beating I so richly deserved,” and how he responded by saying he’d “provide said poet with my itinerary.”

After the awards for autobiography (Francine du Plessix Gray, in an upset over Joan Didion) and fiction (E.L. Doctorow, as the oddsmakers expected), it’s time for the poetry award. John Freeman, a freelance critic and NBCC vice president, takes the podium. He leads off with a joke, giving William Logan’s hotel information “for all the poets in the audience.”

Blas Manuel De Luna, Ron Slate, and Richard Siken, three relative unknowns nominated for their debut books of poetry, stand as their names are announced. Briton Simon Armitage, from what I can see, is a no-show. Jack Gilbert, who seemed frail when I saw him read for the Poetry Society a year ago, is also not in attendance.

I’m not surprised when Freeman announces Gilbert as the winner. Freeman describes his poems as being like Keats, Byron, and Shelley, but “woollier.” I don’t know what this means.

Deborah Garrison—poetry editor at Knopf, Gilbert’s publisher—takes the podium to accept the award on the winner’s behalf. She is gracious and brief. “Thank you to all the publishers for continuing to support this really vital art,” she says, ending her speech.

If the NBCC awards show were a rock concert, the poetry segment of the evening would be the guitar solo people talk over. The back doors of the auditorium, previously closed, are open during the nominee announcements. There is audible chatter from the back, open-mouth coughing.

I’m not saying the audience is rude, but if I were a book reviewer from, say, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I might chat over the poetry segment too, especially given the relative unfamiliarity of the nominees this year. Even Jack Gilbert, a “poet’s poet,” older than the other nominees by an average 35 years, is a relative recluse. How would a general audience recognize any of these names?

The reception is upstairs in Wollman Hall. The spread is awesome. There’s good wine and chicken on skewers. The book reviewers and authors chow down on cheese and crackers and pât. I bump into Doris Kearns Goodwin, then E.L. Doctorow, on the way upstairs. This is literati book-nerd heaven.

One thing I conclude, after talking to a sampling of reviewers, is that most members of the NBCC, many of whom work for daily newspapers and magazines, do not review poetry. Not surprising. It becomes clear that the poetry nominees are chosen in a horse-trading process, according to a hodgepodge of criteria ranging from name recognition to critics’ pets.

Although it’s exciting to see poets roughly my age nominated for this award, I can think of books by Ted Berrigan or the late Kenneth Koch that, at least on paper, should have been locks for nomination. Not that they would have made the audience quiet down during the presentation, but they would at least have brought the poetry category more in line with the all-star teams in the other categories.

I run into Deborah Garrison at a dessert table, and she explains how Knopf editors made a conscious effort to keep Jack Gilbert’s name alive in the nine years between his books. It’s especially gratifying to hear this from an editor-poet. She’s doing God’s work. Or somebody’s.
Originally Published: March 14, 2006

COMMENTS (1)

On March 17, 2012 at 6:11am Henry wrote:
Just curious about the winners/finalists for the Spring Short Short Fiction contest. Will that info be coming soon? Also, I submitted a story in February via Manuscript Hub. Are you still reading those? Thanks!

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Biography

Daniel Nester is the author of How to Be Inappropriate. He lives in upsate New York and teaches at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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