Every awards show has to address the same problem: How do you make the ceremony long and borderline tedious enough to signify the momentousness of the occasion? Last night’s National Book Critics Circle Awards were not exactly a black-tie affair — it’s free, for God’s sake — but the event in the New School auditorium did achieve the requisite level of pomp by having three levels of introduction: President John Freeman introduced a member of one of the six prize-judging panels, who announced the nominees before … introducing another panelist, who gave a longish description of the winning book, sometimes opaque enough so that you only realized who the winner was when he or she got up onstage.
The winners themselves were well deserving, if a little on the predictable side, including Alex Ross for criticism, Mary Jo Bang for poetry, Edwidge Danticat for her tough, sad memoir, and Junot Díaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We’d love to have seen Díaz, ever a live wire, come up and give a profanity-laced, Tolkien-referencing acceptance speech, but it was not to be, as he happens to be in Venezuela. Instead there was his (and Danticat’s) agent Nicole Aragi, who said nothing, and editor Sean McDonald, who gave a wry little speech but never his own name (Mr. Frey’s onetime editor was perhaps lying low during Fake-Memoirist Week II). Best speech of the night has to go to the year’s winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, Sam Anderson, who gave a rousing defense of the art of criticism (and we’re not just saying that because he’s OUR book critic). He may have compared himself to Aristotle and God, but we assure you it was with due humility. —Boris Kachka