An Evening with the National Book Critics Circle Finalists

For some of the most accomplished writers in the country, last night was the equivalent of a cold call audition: All 30 of the finalists for this year's National Book Critics Circle awards were invited to read from their nominated works before an audience of about 200 at the New School in New York.

Every year I dread going. But then every year I love it. So much for learning from experience.

Twenty-three authors either showed up or were represented (two - Roberto Bolano, "2666," and Reginald Shepherd, "Orpheus in the Brox" - are no longer living.)
Remarkably, all the authors stuck pretty close to the time limit, which is the only way such a program could work without keeping us there till summer. Joel Kraemer ("Maimonides") began by saying, "My wife timed this at 2-1/2 minutes, but she has an English accent, so it may be different for me."

The jury is still out - literally - as to whether or not these finalists can influence the judges' decisions with the effectiveness of their readings. Certainly, there was little showboating, little effort to win anybody over with pyrotechnics. Only Allan Lichtman ("White Protestant Nation") ripped the microphone off the lectern and came forcefully to the lip of the stage: "I hate barriers." It was an electrifying moment, but it disturbed the sound system, and the mic dropped in and out during the rest of his energetic reading about the implosion of American conservatism.

Brenda Wineapple gave a thoroughly charming reading from her biography of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth. She was up against two books whose subjects would seem far more dynamic: Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Heminges of Monticello" and Paula Giddings's "Ida B. Wells." But Wineaple's brief dramatization of the precise moment when Wentworth received the first strange letter from the Belle of Amherst was vibrant and captivating.

The poets typically know how to work a room best, and no one will forget Brenda Shaughnessy's witty and startling feminist poem about the moon and her own sexuality. (Using the c-word, she was one of only two authors who presented works not suitable for prime time.) She also read a marvelous poem about writing a poem - a tired subject made fresh by the clarity and good humor of her verse. I wanted to hear more from her. (One of her best lines: "...like a bad boyfriend in a good band.")

Juan Herrera read one of the poems in Spanish from his "Half the World in Light." I don't speak Spanish, but the music of his voice was beautiful.

The time limit puts enormous pressure on the act of selection. George Herring ("From Colony to Superpower") noted that it was not easy to pick a paragraph to read from a 1,000-page study of 200 years of American history. Rick Bass's "Why I Came West" is in the Autobiography category, but the passage he chose about how glaciers behave seemed plucked from a work of science writing. Nobody drifted away during Helene Cooper's dramatic reading from "The House at Sugar Beach" about her Liberian childhood. Adopting the various voices and dialects, she reenacted a terrifying moment in which armed soldiers burst into her house, lined up the women (including her) against a wall and prepared to shoot them.

The Criticism category is generally tough (I was pretty lost during Richard Brody's reading from his book about the films of Jean-Luc Godard), but Vivian Gornick ("The Men in My Life") won over the audience with a delightful assessment of literary critic Randall Jarrell. "When you read, the noise in your head clears out," Jarrell wrote. "Reading is a supremely civilizing act." Speaking of "the beauty of Jarrell's own responsiveness," Gornick presented an elegant celebration of the critic's best (and most troubling) qualities. This is the book I wanted to buy afterward. (All the books were for sale in the lobby.)

Surprisingly, fiction is least effective in this kind of venue. The passages are too short to give us the context we need. Nevertheless, Marilynne Robinson read "Home" in just the kind of gentle, wise voice it should be read in. The audience froze in utter silence, all restlessness stilled, even though we'd already been sitting for more than two hours. And we finally got a chance to see the young, first-time novelist M. Glenn Taylor, who read a rich, colorful passage from "The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart." He even sang a couple of lines in the story.

The 24 board members of the NBCC meet this afternoon (Thursday) to draw up the list of winners. I don't envy them that impossible task.

-- Ron Charles

By Ron Charles |  March 12, 2009; 9:42 AM ET Ron Charles
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Hello Ron:

You are so right about the importance of authors being able to "work a room" when appearing at readings or book-signings.

If decision-makers and audiences find them likable, they're much more likely to vote for that author to receive an award, buy their book, and become enthusiastic word-of-mouth advertisers who recommend the book to others.

Unfortunately, most published authors and aspiring authors rather run from the room than work it.

As 16-time Emcee of the Maui Writers Conference (now the Hawaii Writers Conference), I've seen people land a book deal because they were able to effectively pitch their book in their 10 minute meetings and get the favorable interest of top agents and editors.

I've also seen authors take themselves out of the running by putting people to sleep with boring pitches, confusing book explanations, or monotone readings.

It's not enough to write a great book - authors must take responsibility for being its enthusiastic ambassador.

Authors invest months (years!) writing their book. If they want it to succeed, it's equally important to invest the time to craft a compelling pitch that intrigues decision-makers so they want to know more, and to designing and delivering a fascinating reading that has people on the edge of their seats, eager to hear what's next.

Doing this can make the difference between a book never getting published . . . and it becoming a bookseller favorite that has legs.

Sam Horn, author of POP! Create the Perfect Pitch, Title and Tagline for Anything (Perigee - Penguin, '09)

Posted by: samhorntonguefu | March 15, 2009 11:50 AM

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