The criticism category is one of the unique features of the National Book Critics Circle Awards. The 24 board members who choose these five finalists are, after all, professional critics themselves, so the reflective, analytical enterprise is of special interest. Some of the books included here are just what you would expect, such as James Wood's collected book reviews or Richard Howard's collected essays on art and literature. Others stretch the boundary of this category in surprising ways, such as Graham Robb's analysis of homosexuality in the 19th century or Patrick Neate's globe-trotting discussion of hip-hop. And the inclusion of "Sontag & Keal" confronts the mind like a metaphysical paradox: What happens when 24 critics honor a book by a critic who honors the work of two critics?
All the finalists are invited to read from their nominated books at a gathering open to the public on March 17 at the New School in New York. The awards will be conferred the next day in the same auditorium.
In addition to the prizes, Louis Rubin, the founder of Algonquin Press and the author and editor of more than 50 books, will be given a lifetime achievement award by the NBCC. And David Orr, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Poetry magazine will receive the organization's annual award for best reviewer.
You can find our reviews of the NBCC finalists in fiction, biography, and nonfiction on our website. We'll review the final category, poetry, next week. - Ron Charles, book editor
Two years ago, the National Book Critics Circle presented a lifetime achievement award to poet, scholar, teacher, critic, and translator Richard Howard. When he accepted, Howard joked that he hoped the award didn't mean his life's work was done. This collection of essays, "Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003," published in tandem with "Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003," is testimony that Howard's life's work is far from finished. He touches on poetry, French literature, the visual arts, prose, and new poets. Many of Howard's subjects may seem obscure, but the obscurity will be fleeting, as Howard's goal in these essays is to teach, to elucidate, and to make our experience of the arts larger. From the opening essay on Emily Dickinson to essays on Rodin and Marguerite Yourcenar to the closing section on emerging poets, Howard shows that the production and study of art, in the final analysis, transcends our baser occupations, and it just may be that art is what defines us, what makes us human. By Eric Miles Williamson
Where You're At, by Patrick Neate, Riverhead, 274 pp., $14
Several years ago, British novelist Patrick Neate found himself in a Tokyo hip-hop club called Harlem. African men pretending to be black Americans danced with Japanese girls who'd tanned their skin almost charcoal. As Neate discovers in his lively travelogue, hip-hop tends to lead to this kind of cultural cross-dressing wherever it spreads. And he should know. A white Londoner who studied at Cambridge and learned to be a DJ in Zimbabwe, Neate is a walking example of why authenticity is a slippery term. He finds all kinds of definitions for it during his travels in Rio, New York, and Cape Town, talking to emcees named Herb and bopping his head to South African bubblegum. Like any expert in a marginalized genre that's gone mainstream, Neate can be tedious. He's forever clocking how five minutes ago a scene is, or measuring its purity with a gemologist's precision. But he has a firm grasp of the hip-hop timeline from the break beat all the way up to Eminem's sampling, and his discography spans several continents. By John Freeman
For the past three decades, standard wisdom has held that gays did not identify themselves as homosexual until 1870, when doctors diagnosed them as such. But in this provocative book, Robb argues that gay culture existed long before the medical establishment said so. To hear Robb tell it, doctors actually did more harm than good. Luckily, there were mild treatments, such as one doctor's prescription of "cold baths with outdoor exercise and the study of mathematics." Others prescribed prostitutes. Still, no matter how persistent the oppression, gay life was lived. There were the docks in Barcelona, the Champs-Elysées in Paris, Central Park in New York City, and almost anywhere in Naples. Encoding behavior was not just a necessity but a sport, and the selectivity of this life bred a closeness that made the world seem small. One could hardly pick a better literary sleuth for this world than Robb. His previous biographies were notable for their combination of research and page-turning readability. By John Freeman
Seligman has taken a risky route with his twin portraits of film critic Pauline Kael and all-around woman of letters Susan Sontag. What can one say about them that they didn't utter themselves with more flair? As it turns out, that's not really the point. Rather, Seligman wants to register their impact on his own mind. If you're looking for a major reexamination of their work, search elsewhere. But if you believe that criticism exists between the intersection of sense and sensibility, then "Sontag & Kael" is a fine book. Seligman knew Kael for more than 20 years and so she was clearly the more intimate mentor. Not surprisingly, he goes rather easy on Kael's inconsistencies as a critic. His reaction to Sontag is more complicated, since her persona is seductive to him while her politics are not. "I didn't want to write a book with a hero and a villain," he says, "but Sontag kept making it hard for me." It is a testament to his liveliness that we finish this book wanting to argue back. By John Freeman
If journalism is a first draft of history, book reviews are dispatches from the front lines of literature. A good critic may capture the qualities of an individual book, but for a broader perspective on the art of writing in our times, we must wait for the scholarship of future generations. Or we may read James Wood. To call Wood exemplary as a book critic would be inaccurate, because his writing simply can't be measured against that of other essayists. The 22 eloquent essays reprinted here range in subject from William Shakespeare to Leo Tolstoy to Tom Wolfe. But, impressive as the breadth of material may be, what makes Wood incomparably important as a literary critic is that every piece contributes to an encompassing vision of contemporary literature. This book is chiefly concerned with one facet of that picture: the distinction to be drawn between premodern satire, in which the narrator is "reliably unreliable," and modern tragicomedy, in which the narrator is "unreliably unreliable." By Jonathon Keats