The 2016 National Book Critics Circle Awards Reflected the Evolving Conversation About Diversity

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Photo: Andrew Toth/Getty Images

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me changed the cultural conversation last year, focusing our fickle attention on black lives as never before. So why did the book’s failure to win a National Book Critics Circle Award last night feel like a triumph for diversity? For one thing, he lost (in the criticism category) to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a groundbreaking, theory-inflected memoir about starting a family with a partner in gender transition. But there was something else, too. A month after the so-white Oscars and only a week after Publishers Weekly ran a long story headlined “Why Publishing Is So White,” the NBCC Awards were not so very white at all. A deep bench of writers across genres, races, genders, and vastly different points of view yielded African American winners in half of the six categories, all telling the truth, but telling it slant.

“Why these days a book of gratitude?” asked the ebullient black poet Ross Gay, after bounding to the stage at the New School to accept the poetry prize for Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. “Celebration, exultation, praise, gratitude, and the rigorous public practice of those things is one of the ways we remind ourselves that living is the ground — that being murdered and fucked over and terrorized is an aberration … that we are meant in fact to live.” Pointed conclusion aside, Gay’s speech was a very on-message litany of gratitude for everyone from Pablo Neruda to Earth Wind and Fire and the Bloomington Community Orchard. His poems are as much about gardening as they are about race.

It’s an odd quirk of the NBCC Awards, a wonkier cousin to the National Book Awards (where Coates won in November), that arbitrarily divided categories — “criticism,” “biography,” “nonfiction” — actually encourage a blurring of boundaries. And so, the critic Margo Jefferson beat the poet Elizabeth Alexander in “autobiography.” Jefferson’s Negroland was another bit of counterprogramming: a chronicle of her upbringing among the black upper class during the 1950s. Her speech began by laughingly correcting an introduction that had her growing up in the forties (“I was born in ’47 — vanity!”) and ended, like Gay’s talk, with a clarification of her own message. “I’m not advocating for a return to the use of ‘Negro,’ alright?” she said. “It was meant to signify very particular things.”

Jefferson’s care to avoid offense was almost comical in light of the night’s winner for fiction, Paul Beatty. His satirical, centrifugal novel, The Sellout, stars a black man — a weed and watermelon dealer — hauled before the Supreme Court for keeping a slave, a surviving Little Rascal named Hominy. The Sellout abounds in slurs and stereotypes reappropriated in the service of saw-toothed humor. Onstage, Beatty reported that his editor’s first words on receiving the manuscript were probably, “What the fuck?” Like his fellow winners, he had a clarification to make: “It’s bad for me to go last, I don’t have that much to say and I definitely don’t have a message, so, sorry about that.”

The NBCC Awards are always rather low-key even by the standards of literary awards, but contrast Beatty’s reticence with Coates’s powerful speech at the National Book Awards. (“You won’t enroll me in this lie.”) In fact, Coates didn’t even attend the ceremony last night. Chris Rock had to host this year’s Oscars ceremony and devote most of his time to unpacking the glaring absence of black nominees. No one needed to address such issues at the NBCC Awards, because the nominated books already had.

Most of the winners did seem to be responding in some way to the challenges thrown down by Between the World and Me. “In a way, everything anybody read this year was in dialogue with [Coates],” Joanna Scutts, the chair of the NBCC’s autobiography committee, told me at the post-awards reception. Both Coates and Maggie Nelson, she said, “are thinking about what the body can reveal about political and social truths that are larger than the individual.” The winner in nonfiction, Sam Quinones’s Dreamland, investigates the opiate epidemic that now afflicts mostly white rural communities.

Board members are naturally reluctant to cast their decisions as strategic or deliberately contrarian, but Scutts copped to a little of it. “Ta-Nehisi was so dominant in the culture last year,” she said. “But in a way we thought, let’s think about the books that are illuminated by his work. It’s one of the things that we do, coming late in the awards cycle.”

The choice of The Argonauts makes even more sense in that context. “Maggie Nelson’s book could not have been written even twenty years ago,” said Karen Long, the nonfiction chair. “I so appreciated her allowing me into what otherwise I would never know about.” Whether there’s enough diversity in the publishing industry or the books it produces, the critic has her own job to do. “I think criticism and discernment is about which direction you gaze,” said Long. “And so, look in a new direction, have a new life. We all will be embarrassed in twenty years about what we’ve been blind about.”