Last night’s National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Golden Globes of books — wherein the rapidly shrinking circle of American book reviewers singles out the year’s best books in six categories — was predictably fraught with premonitions of doom, beginning with president Jane Ciabattari noting that critics sit at “the intersection of the dying of two industries, newspapers and book publishing.”
We must inform you that Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 took the fiction prize, and that for the first time in the organization’s 35 years, a category prize — poetry — was shared by two authors, Juan Felipe Herrera and August Kleinzahler. (See the complete list of winners.) But just like last year, when our own Sam Anderson rallied the crowd, the awards event belonged to the winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, a chap by the name of Ron Charles. His livelihood under threat after the Washington Post’s “Book World” folded, Charles — who still reviews for other Post sections — was on fire. “I don’t know if I’m nervous or this is just survivor’s guilt,” he said, just getting warmed up.
“Some muckraker at the Observer suggested I’d won the award in an effort to save “Book World,”” said Charles, in affable jokester mode. “Mission accomplished! Here we are with one stand-alone book-review section on the East Coast, and it won’t return my calls. Please Sam,” he yelled, rhetorically, to Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. “Make room for just one more!” Charles also made the usual plea for the essential role of critics like himself in leading consumers to valuable books. Then, on the topic of just how many books he has to sort through (150 a day), he went in for the kill: “For all of Chris Anderson’s celebration of “the Long Tail,” from where I’m sitting, it looks like a lot of ass.” Which got us thinking. Wouldn’t this world be a better place if we could just get all the unemployed book critics into stand-up?