July 30, 2020 — Today is the birthday of William Gass, a writer and philosopher born in Fargo in 1924. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Cornell in 1954 and is one of today’s most critically acclaimed authors of fiction and criticism.

Each year, hundreds of book reviewers in the National Book Critics Circle vote for what they feel is the year’s best book in five different categories: fiction, biography or autobiography, general nonfiction, poetry, and criticism. Awards are on a par with the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and for most writers, receiving a National Book Critics Circle Award is considered one of the most prestigious honors in literature. Ironically, Gass hasn’t always agreed.

In 1985, he won in the category of criticism for a book called, “Habitations of the Word.” In 2003, he won again, this time for a work called “Finding a Form.” He was unable to attend either award ceremony, but he wrote the following for last year’s event:

“A few years ago, a book of mine was honored by the National Book Critics Circle, and on that occasion, too, a previous commitment made it impossible for me to attend the award ceremony. Thinking back on my record regarding such things, I realized that when I attended the ceremonies, I became what is called ‘a finalist,’ but when I was unable to be there, I sometimes ‘won’ by a syllable or so down the stretch. I must apologize to my fellow finalists because my absence ... has given me an unfair advantage.

“Naturally,” he continued, “I understand why I have received this award. In the very book in question, I have an essay (often, it appears to be the only one anybody’s read) which complains that many prize-giving panels (not the National Book Critics Circle, of course) ‘take dead aim at mediocrity and always hit their mark.’ My punishment is plain. I shall try to do better next time... As for this time,” he finished, “Thank you very, very much.”

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