On Jan. 20, the National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its awards for the best books of 2006. The NBCC asks its members to submit their five favorite books in a variety of categories, but since I mostly covered fiction in 2006, that was the only category where I filed a ballot. Here’s my list:
- Ward Just, Forgetfulness
- Clifford Chase, Winkie
- Etgar Keret, The Nimrod Flipout
- Ben Fountain, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara
- Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
I batted zero-for-five—none of my choices made the NBCCs fiction list. The same thing would’ve happened if I swapped in a pair of 2006 books I fell for but read too late to include on my ballot—Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker and Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children. The list of nonfiction books I wish that I got around to is much longer than the ones I did read, but I went ahead and filed a list with Kirkus Reviews anyhow:
- Deborah Blum, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death
- Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq
- The Paris Review Interviews, I
- Margo Jefferson, On Michael Jackson
- Neil Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
Again, no dice. I’m not wounded—hell, diversity of opinion when it comes to year-end lists is half the fun. But going though the whole process—and seeing how it turned out—makes me to wonder if consensus is possible, or even worthwhile, with books. Best-of lists make perfect sense with, say, movies and TV, where the pool of available choices is relatively limited. But book critics tend to follow their own enthusiasms, which makes common ground harder to find. In an interview with the excellent books blog The Elegant Variation, NBCC president John Freeman sheds some on the awards selection process. If I’m reading right, finalists are largely selected by the committee members for individual categories. Rank-and-file critics like me get to play, but it’s not easy for them to get a selection on the short list: “Our members get to vote on the awards, and if twenty percent of them vote for a book, it automatically becomes a finalist,” Freeman says.
This year was the first time that happened—Michael Pollan’s study of the food industry, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home, both cleared the bar. (It may be no coincidence that both books were much blogged about, not least by Bookslut.) That success is enough to make me reconsider reading them, but I’m stubborn enough to lobby for my own choices: if I’m not wounded, I’m at least slightly bummed that the NBCC list (and others I’ve seen) lacks any mention of Fountain’s Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, a potent assortment of short stories that are mostly set in the world’s trouble spots—places like Haiti, Myanmar, and Sierra Leone. There’s a lot of navel-gazing in American fiction these days, and Fountain’s fiercely internationalist approach is a tremendous counterweight to that trend. Even if the writing itself weren’t so strong—though it is—the spirit of the book alone makes it worth attention. If you’re asking me, anyway.