Saturday, March 8, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award

As I am sure everyone is aware, the National Book Critics Circle Award announced its winners this week.

I'm quite happy for Junot Diaz, whom I admire very much. He won in the fiction category with his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. His short story collection, Drown (1996), is among my favorites of the genre. Oscar Wao shows that Diaz still has the sharp and distinct voice that won him so many admirers. The book alternates between multiple voices and narrative threads with deft efficiency.

Herein lies the problem that some of us have with the book. (Let's not call it a problem, more of an observation really.) The book's multiple-narrator and somewhat fragmented quality resembles, in many ways, a linked story collection or a "novel in stories." There is nothing inherently problematic here except that, having waited for over a decade on this book, some of us were expecting a work with a more traditionally focused rising arc. This surprise, along with the fact that Diaz abandoned one or more novel projects in the time since his first book, has led a few to question how capable he is of producing a sustained, book-length narrative arc.

And yet I must chastise myself for this kind of criticism, no? What do my own private expectations have to do with this book's worth? Nothing at all, my readers might answer, and I have no answer to this. I'm projecting criteria based upon what I wanted to see. Authors write the books they write. So let it be with Diaz. Let's recognize Oscar Wao as an achievement on its own merits. Congratulations sir.

It's also worth noting that the poetry winner, Mary Jo Bang's Elegy, was published by the small press Graywolf. This is always good to see, the little guys recognized among the big players. But
Graywolf. . .oh, Graywolf, we have history do we not? This same press received my inquiry in 2006, requested samples, then the entire manuscript. They kept it for several months, my hopes rising with every day (no news is good news, right) only to reject it wholesale, sending me on an ugly three-day bender. But water under the bridge as they say. Congratulations to Ms. Jo Bang and to Graywolf.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books).
General Nonfiction:
Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experiments on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (Doubleday).
Tim Jeal, Stanley, the Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer (Yale University Press).
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I'm Dying (Knopf).
Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Mary Jo Bang, Elegy (Graywolf Press).
Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award:
Emilie Buchwald.
Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing:
Sam Anderson, New York Magazine.

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