Critiquing the critics' choice of top books for '83

There has been much concern in recent years about a growing trend toward the commercialization of book awards. To many readers, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Awards have come to represent a less commercial spirit than the American Book Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes. In the opinion of one director on the NBCC board, Los Angeles-based Digby Diehl, the NBCC's are ''the least political, least tainted'' awards he knows of. Yet though the NBCC Awards are probably the most respected among professional critics, in the eyes of some critics, the NBCC list is not yet entirely free from parochialism.

The NBCC chooses its slate of five nominees in five categories from the field of books by American authors in the English language. This practice can certainly be justified - by the fact, for instance, that American writers aren't eligible for British awards like the Booker Prize - but the exclusion of books by non-Americans is nonetheless regrettable. Some of the best fiction I've read this year has been by British or Irish writers: A.N. Wilson's ''Wise Virgin,'' William Trevor's collected stories, Anita Brookner's ''Look at Me,'' Bernard MacLaverty's ''Cal.'' Many Americans who care about fiction would probably enjoy any of the above-mentioned books as much as - or more than - some of the American novels nominated in the fiction category, where William Kennedy's Ironweed, the third of its author's ''Albany'' series, captured the award.

Many reviewers and critics were gratified to see such uncommercial nominations as Ron Loewinsohn's ''Magnetic Field(s)'' and Joan Chase's ''During the Reign of the Queen of Persia.'' Kathleen Leverich, who reviews frequently for the Monitor, admires ''the intuitive miracle work'' of Raymond Carver's short story collection ''Cathedral,'' also nominated. But another regular Monitor contributor, Bruce Allen, found nom-inees in the fiction category rather tame. ''Weren't the critics impressed by extravagant, ambitious novels like Hortense Calisher's eerie 'Mysteries of Motion' and Norman Mailer's amazing 'Ancient Evenings'? '' he wondered.

Although board member Diehl believes that so-called ''New York parochialism'' has become a thing of the past for the NBCC, the nominations and awards still seem to bear an uncanny resemblance - however inadmissible - to the year-end book list published in the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR).

Iowa-based NBCC member James Kaufmann, who reviews paperbacks regularly for the Monitor, admits to feeling somewhat left out, not as a result of any sinister East Coast cabal, but simply because, as he puts it, most reviewers and others in the book business are concentrated in the Northeast.

But parochialism, I suspect, may have less to do with region and more to do with questions of taste and critical frames of mind. I was sorry not to see among the nominations Joseph Hansen's moving and beautifully written ''Job's Year'' (omitted, perhaps, because the NYTBR has not thus far reviewed it) and Judith Rossner's ''August,'' an ambitious and absorbing portrayal of psychotherapy. Similarly, Bruce Allen suspects that Mailer's genuine originality is in danger of being overlooked on account of a ''critical backlash'' against his celebrity status and ''macho'' posturing. On the other hand, critics may be responding to what many lay readers have judged to be Mailer's self-serving celebration of decadence.

A regrettable omission from general nonfiction, again because the writer was British, is Paul Johnson's provocative ''Modern Times.'' That Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House won in this category has pleased some people, but it's understandable that the NBCC would wish to commend one of the few members of the press not to take Kissinger at Kissinger's own estimation. Hersh's book is particularly timely in light of the Kissinger Commission's recent report on Central America.

But should timeliness (in the guise of Kissinger, the fate of the North Atlantic fisherman, nuclear war, or the children of war, the topics of other very worthwhile nominees in this category) be pitted against a book like David Landes's ''Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World''? Surely there should be a separate category for history, which does not belong in the grab bag of general nonfiction. As things stand, general nonfiction was to include not only history and current events, but almost serve as the category of last resort for everything from travel books to speculation and/or studies about science, psychology, economics, medicine, family life, ethics, and religion. Although Monitor reviewers Steven Ratiner and James Kaufmann expected that James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover would win in the poetry category (as it did), Kaufmann admits that he had been hoping against hope for Jorie Graham's ''Erosion.'' Ratiner, who found Merrill's volume one of the ''most invigorating, visionary books of 20th-century poetry,'' also considers Jorie Graham and Cathy Song exceptionally promising young poets and was particularly moved by the quiet emotion of Song's ''Picture Bride.'' Bruce Allen would have included Mary Oliver's ''American Primitive'' for its tough-minded eloquence.

Nominations in biography/autobiography proved rather disappointing even to NBCC board members like Diehl, who says he was surprised not to find William Manchester's biography of Churchill nominated. Again, I'd say it is unfortunate that two British biographies, Frances Spaulding's ''Vanessa Bell,'' and Victoria Glendinning's ''Vita,'' could not even be considered. Incidentally, it seems unfair to pit fully researched biographies like Kaplan's ''Thomas Carlyle'' against a diverting but slight personal reminiscence like Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters, which won.

The criticism category, like biography and general nonfiction, leads to comparisons of academic apples (like Helen Vendler) and literary-journalist oranges (like Cynthia Ozick). Music criticism (John Rockwell's ''All American Music Composition in the Late 20th Century'') vies with art history (Svetlana Alpers's ''The Art of Describing''). John Updike's Hugging the Shore, collected essays and reviews, prevailed to the delight of many, including critic Kaufmann. When one considers, however, that criticism has a history that includes Aristotle, Longinus, Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Arnold, Ruskin, Wilde, and T. S. Eliot - not to mention Yvor Winters, Lionel Trilling, Allen Tate, and Harold Bloom - the choice of Updike shows a disappointing predilection for the spirit of safety and consensus (''Hugging the Shore'' indeed) over the spirit of critical adventurousness, and a correspondingly weak conception of the function of criticism. The judgment is all the more surprising coming, as it does, from a group of critics. Updike is, of course, the thorough and competent reviewer, but I suspect that if his name were John Smith - and if he were not the creator of Rabbit - no one would single out his reviews in particular. And how and why, as at least one concerned critic of criticism wondered, did the NBCC fail even to nominate Wendell Berry's ''Standing By Words''?

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