“Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson’s poetic, modern-day testament of a dying Iowa preacher, won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction Friday night.
“I could not be more delighted,” said an emotional Robinson, whose novel was her first since she debuted in 1980 with the acclaimed “Housekeeping.” Robinson, a faculty member at the University of Iowa’s influential Writers’ Workshop, praised her school for offering “a wonderful intellectual and spiritual home.”
Bob Dylan, a finalist for the biography/autobiography prize for his memoir “Chronicles, Vol. 1,” did not attend and did not win. The award instead was given to “De Kooning: An American Master,” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. Music did prevail in the criticism category, with Patrick Neate winning for “Where You’re At: Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet.”
Neate, who described himself as a “middle-class, English white bloke,” began his speech by saying “Gosh,” and then joked that he “must be the first person in the history of hip-hop to say, ‘Gosh.”’
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “The Reformation: A History” won for general nonfiction, while Adrienne Rich, winner of the National Book Award and other honors in her long career, was cited in poetry for “The School Among the Ruins.”
The 75-year-old Rich, known for her literary passion and political commitment, called the NBCC prize a “signal honor” and went on to thank “the movements and activists which have educated and fired me throughout my life.”
In accepting the fiction prize, Robinson praised critics for welcoming a book that was “quiet” and “probably a little arcane.” Her novel, written in concise, complex prose, is narrated by John Ames, a preacher suffering from heart disease who looks back at a world for which he feels awe, but also dismay.
Fiction finalists included Philip Roth, a former NBCC winner nominated for “The Plot Against America,” his dsytopian novel of the United States under a presidency of Charles Lindbergh. Other nominees were Edwidge Danticat’s “The Dew Breaker” and two British releases, Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning “The Line of Beauty” and David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” a Booker finalist.
Books published overseas in English are also eligible for the NBCC prize.
A lifetime achievement award was given to Louis D. Rubin, Jr., a prolific author and founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a North Carolina-based publisher known for such Southern writers as Jill McCorkle and Clyde Edgerton.
David Orr, whose poetry reviews have appeared in The New York Times and Poetry magazine, received an honorary prize for criticism. A “special citation” was given to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a library unto itself at more than 60 million words, covering more than 50,000 lives.
The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, is a not-for-profit organization of about 600 book editors and critics. An NBCC award brings a wealth of prestige, but no actual cash.