Brilliant, Under-Appreciated Books Lead This Year’s National Book Critics Circle Shortlist

Thirty finalists across six categories will compete for this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, which will be presented on March 17 in a ceremony that is open to the public. And although we might quibble over the exclusion of certain preferences from the list of nominees, it’s worth noting, yet again, that the category structure of the awards makes for a more interesting and perhaps fairer contest, one that also aims to put the lie to the notion that critics are more monkish and less progressive than other voting bodies. You might even say that the National Book Critics Circle is best characterized by its progressive sensibility with regard to both exceptional books and category flexibility that somehow go unnoticed by broader publishing.

Where else would you find the inclusion of a book of poetry in the criticism category? Last year, the NBCC included Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, an extended work of poetry that doubles as a communitarian essay on racism, in both categories — we agreed with the decision. There are no such moves toward category crisscrossing this year, but it’s evident that the breakdown — between biography and autobiography, for example, implemented only ten years ago — is in sync with the movements of contemporary literature, which is nothing if not amiably drunk on its varieties of nonfiction.

Take (again), the criticism category, where the NBCC routinely stands out. This year we see the inclusion of three major works of criticism — Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life — that could likewise be included in the autobiography category. Only it makes sense to put these hybrid essays into competition with more classical examples of criticism, like Leo Damrosch’s Eternity’s Sunrise, a robust and accessible study of William Blake, or Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, which has been described as “as riveting as a series on Netflix or HBO” but is actually a wonderful book that is as “riveting” as a wonderful book.

The placement of the above-mentioned works of autobiographical criticism in the “criticism” category makes room for powerful works of composite autobiography in the “autobiography” category. Few nonfiction books of the last year have resonated more with audiences in both the US and the UK than Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, a book that blends a memoir of grief with essayistic observations on narrative and history. And grief, too, is the organizing principle of Elizabeth Alexander’s popular The Light of the World, which, along with George Hodgman’s Bettyville, is among the more straightforward memoirs of the group. Finally, the two best-written books in this category — Margo Jefferson’s incisive and deeply performative Negroland and Vivian Gornick’s extended essay on friendship and urban life, The Odd Woman and the City (probably the best of many recent books about walking) — are both destined to be classics for the way they elide their variegations with the elegance of their prose.

A fiction category that includes an overwhelming popular favorite, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which was praised by President Obama, also embraces critical successes that haven’t been met with the same intensity by awards voters. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, one of the year’s best and funniest novels, may find its due in this year’s shortlist, even as it competes against the darkly brilliant Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh and Valeria Luiselli’s clever and strange The Story of My Teeth — two nominees who remind us that idiosyncrasy is a charge of fiction. The same could be said of Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, the year’s only nominated collection of short stories.

Elsewhere, in the “nonfiction” category, the NBCC demonstrates its preference for reaching into the blindspots of the awards calendar by nominating two deserving books that bookended the year: Mary Beard’s brilliant, often humorous SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (which I listened to as an audiobook) and Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, a feat of extended reporting on “black-on-black homicide” that received a glowing endorsement from the New York TimesSunday Book Review last JanuaryAnother example of the NBCC’s willingness to draw out works of critical acclaim that have been nonetheless passed over is Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, which avoids a generalist study of the Civil Rights era in favor of a deeper look at the counterrevolution against the Voting Rights Act — which candidate Bernie Sanders now seeks to restore.

Finally, while the list of poetry nominees does not include Robin Lewis Coste’s
Voyage of the Sable Venus, which rightfully won the National Book Award, it does represent another chance for Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, a book I’ll be reading for years. The same goes for Ada Limón’s blazing Bright Dead Things and Terrance Hayes’ NBA-nominated How to Be Drawn, two books that should be popular with readers if they get their just recognition. Finally, the fact that I’ve never read and hadn’t heard of Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax and Selected Poems only means that I’ll now read it with the NBCC’s endorsement. And any recognition of the work of Frank Stanford, whom C.D. Wright considered our Rimbaud, is an intervention into poetry’s past that I support.