Monday, January 23, 2012

Recapping the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Well, my predictions of the National Book Critics Circle Award fiction finalists didn’t go very well, but it was fun taking a stand!

I expected to get one, and maybe two of the finalists correct. I ended up with a big fat donut! Zip.

On the bright side, I got to attend the event where the finalists were named in person! See more about that at the end of the post.

First, if you haven’t heard, the finalists are:

     Open City by Teju Cole
     The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
     The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
     Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

     Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
Some observations: 
- I had noted in my predictions post that the NBCC finalists often include a book in English by a non-American. With The Stranger’s Child as a finalist, this trend continues.

- One thing that I did not note: in previous years a single National Book Award finalist has sometimes repeated as an NBCC finalist. This year the repeater is Binocular Vision.

- In my recap of literary fiction of 2011, I noted that there were many excellent debut novels published in 2011. In fact, I thought there was room for two among the five NBCC finalists. Although, neither of my predictions -- The Tiger’s Wife and The Art of Fielding –- were selected, another debut novel was: Open City.

- I mentioned that there was sure to be a "sleeper," and in my opinion Stone Arabia certainly qualifies. Although it was amongst the New York Times' 100 notable books of the year, I had not heard any buzz about it, unlike the other four.

After my two other posts on the NBCC award, I learned more about the process through which the finalists are chosen. (I should have done my research in advance: lesson learned!) Books can become finalists in one of two ways:

1) Through a juried process (like the National Book Award) where NBCC board members read, debate, vote and agree on finalists. Yet, unlike the National Book Award, where the jury only considers books submitted by publishers, the NBCC jury can consider any book they desire.
          2) By a vote of at least 20% of the general membership of the NBCC.

Without knowing for certain (and the NBCC does not release such information), I am fairly confident that the second method is how The Marriage Plot became a finalist. Still, I am quite surprised. From my memory, there were many more mixed reviews of it than of other “popular” but still “literary” novels this year. I seem to remember more consistent reviews of The Tiger’s Wife, for example.

Of the finalists, so far, I have only read The Marriage Plot. I just began Open City and I already had planned to read The Stranger’s Child for the Tournament of Books. Also, now that it has been nominated for two major awards, I don’t think I can ignore Binocular Vision anymore. If you are curious about it, you should know that it is a short story collection, not a novel. In fact, it already won the PEN/Malamud award, given for excellence in the short story. Still, with other reading commitments, I am not sure if I will have time to read it or Stone Arabia. If you have read either, please give me some advice on whether I should make some time in the comments.

Please note, the winner, along with the winner in the other NBCC categories (poetry, autobiography, biography, general non-fiction and criticism) will be announced on March 8th. I will post more on the topic before then.

The Event

As I said at the beginning of this post, I was able to attend the event where the NBCC finalists were announced. I found a press release that said it was open to the public, and it was!  There wasn't even a check-in table with someone asking who people were, for record keeping or what not. It was quite surprising for New York City. Even more surprising: there were free libations and finger food.

Still, overall, it was a very simple event. No glitz. Just a microphone and a quick announcement of the finalists. It was held it in an big open gallery space that was in between exhibits. For people who know New York City, it was one block north of Canal St., if that gives you a sense of the vibe. I only took one picture, and it is really quite meaningless, but I include here anyway. I should have taken a picture of last years' winner, Jennifer Egan, announcing the fiction finalists. Alas, I didn't.

I'll end with a fun anecdote. After milling about by myself for a while, seeing the typical clusters of 3-5 people where it's hard to break in and introduce yourself, I struck up a conversation with someone else standing alone. He turned out to be an author. And he wasn't just some struggling writer; he won a known literary award within the last few years. I really don't want to give him a public shout out. I will say he isn't a household name -- the award he won wasn't one of the "big ones" -- but I had heard of him and his book. It was just one of those fun serendipitous things that can happen sometimes.

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