Last year I read nearly 150 books, with fiction (74) slightly exceeding nonfiction (67). In the latter category, about one third of the books were biographies or autobiographies. So how did I do in voting for the National Book Critics Circle awards? Once again an 0-fer in the finalists in four main categories: fiction, biography and autobiography. Not only that, I didn’t read any of the 20 books making the list in those categories (although I have two on my Nook).
Only one book I read made the finalist list, and it also happens to be one I voted for. Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music is one of the five finalists in the Criticism category. Yet it isn’t really new. It is a collection of articles she wrote as pop music critic for The New Yorker in the late ’60s and ’70s.
I consider myself relatively well read. Perhaps I am wrong. My record in voting for the NBCC finalists (a process in which my vote actually means little or nothing) is dismal — and that’s being kind. I prefer to think, though, that rather than having no taste in books, the NBCC and similar awards reflect the views of a certain close-knit group. Call them literary elites, if you want, but ultimately it seems that “quality,” whatever that means, is dictated from a NYC publishing house viewpoint.
Now I’m not panning any of the finalists and certainly don’t have a right to since I haven’t read any of them. But it still strikes me as odd that you can probably count on one hand the number of books I’ve voted for in my five years as a member that made the finalist list. Maybe I truly am just an ignorant illiterati who wouldn’t know a good book if it hit him upside the head with a two-by-four.
The bottom line is that, in the end, cultural relevancy is decided by the public, not by critics[.]
Jason Pinter, “Death of the Literati”