Everybody’s a Critic

Backseat driver. Armchair quarterback. The woman who continually finds fault with her husband. The world has no shortage of critics. Blessed is the person who learns to take criticism in stride and grow from it.

Almost as good, but perhaps more enviable, is the person who can turn a knack for criticism into a paying job.

Love ’em or hate ’em, professional critics are critical to the development of the arts, whether literature, drama, music, or film. Critics don’t always agree with each other, which stimulates debate. They seek out the best and point out the worst (as they perceive them), which fosters diversity. And a desire to win their nod of approval keeps artists striving for excellence.

Like the rest of us, critics are herd animals, and therefore tend to form groups for professional and moral support. One such body, the National Book Critics Circle, is a nonprofit organization of more than 900 book reviewers whose most prominent activity is administering an award program of the same name.

The National Book Critics Circle Award goes to the best book of the year published in each of six categories: autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The organization also salutes the most accomplished reviewer among their ranks with the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and recognizes exceptional contributions to book culture with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

For these awards, the NBCC consider titles by authors from any country, but the book must be published in the United States. Winners are announced at the organization’s yearly membership meeting in New York City, which takes place in March, and are subsequently posted on the website.

At the first NBCC board meeting of the year, also usually in March, the board breaks down into committees, one for each of the award categories. Each board member is required to participate in at least two committees. Throughout the rest of the year, these committee members read, consider and discuss the nominations, both online through the email listserves and in two subsequent in-person meetings throughout the year.

Publishers can submit books for consideration (supplying 24 copies for the committee members to read), but the judges can also suggest book of their own choosing. By late December, the committees will have whittled the entrants down to ten in each category. Around this time, the general membership can vote on books they’d like the board to name, and if 20% of the voting membership names a title, it’s put on the shortlist.

At the January meeting, the committees name the shortlist of five books in each category. Thereafter, all board members choose the winners through many rounds of voting and discussion. Occasionally, the board barely reaches a decision in time to announce the winner at the awards ceremony.

In 1975, the first year the awards were given, E.L. Doctorow was the fiction winner for his novel, Ragtime; in 1976, it was John Gardner, for October Light. The next year, Toni Morrison won with Song of Solomon. All the way to last year’s fiction winner, Roberto Bolaño and his novel, 2666, the list of big names and titles goes on for more than three decades.

Whether or not you’re critical of the critics’ critiques, nine hundred critics can’t always be wrong. Whatever your tastes, you’ll find plenty of good reads on this list. Check them out!