So, yesterday, on the National Book Critics Circle blog Critical Mass, passing mention was made of a post on the blog of Bruce Bawer, who’s up for this year’s NBCC award for criticism. That led to a polite argument between NBCC board members, as the group’s current president, John Freeman, confessed that “I have never been more embarrased by a choice than I have been with Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept,” which he describes as a work of “Islamaphobia.”
“I’d be curious to know how many of my fellow NBCC board members who voted for this book have been inside a Muslim household,” Freeman wonders, “let alone a Muslim country?” Less than an hour later, fellow director Jennifer Reese said she’d lived with a Muslim woman for two years and then went to visit her in Turkey, “but why should I even have to say this?” She added, “I don’t buy into everything that Bawer says, but I found his book very persuasive based on the factual evidence he presents, and I am not embarrassed to have voted for it.” So Freeman replies that he wasn’t really asking about the committee members contact with Muslims, just pointing out that “our committee of American passport holding, mostly white, entirely non-Muslim judges is taking as fact (about a religion and culture) the word of someone who is outside that culture himself, who does not speak Arabic, and who routinely uses absolutely ridiculous rhetoric.”
Freeman’s not the only one upset by Bawer’s presence on the shortlist: At the unveiling of the finalists last month, former NBCC winner Eliot Wineberger accused While Europe Slept of racism as he was announcing its inclusion in the criticism shortlist. It should make for an interesting evening at the awards ceremony if Bawer decides to fly in from Europe (although I think it’s fairly safe to say his chances of actually winning the prize are slim).