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For the second year in a row, a Washington University faculty member has won a National Book Critics Circle Award. William H. Gass, Ph.D., the David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities and director of the International Writers Center in Arts and Sciences, won this year's National Book Critics Circle Award in the criticism category for his book "Finding a Form." Last year, the late Stanley Elkin posthumously won the award in the fiction category for his novel "Mrs. Ted Bliss." Elkin, Ph.D., was the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts and Sciences until his death in May 1995.
Both Gass and Elkin are two-time winners of the award. Gass won the 1985 National Book Critics Circle Award in the criticism category for "Habitations of the Word." Elkin won the 1982 award in the fiction category for "George Mills."
This year's winners in the criticism and four other categories were announced at a ceremony March 18 in New York City. The National Book Critics Circle Award is considered one of the most prestigious honors in literature -- on a level with the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Gass, who was unable to attend the ceremony, said in a written statement:
"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, 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.
"If there is a next time. If there is a next time, I promise to come to the ceremony even if on that night I've been invited to a sleep-over in the Lincoln room. And I shall wear a smile as wide as my disappointment when I don't win.
"As for this time: Thank you very, very much."
Published by Knopf, "Finding a Form" is a collection of essays by the novelist, critic and philosopher. A review of the book in Publishers Weekly said: "Gass' commitment to ideas, concentrated energy and originality shine through on every page. ... Gass' deeply felt essays ... are quotable, flecked with fertile insights and a pleasure to read."
Gass joined Washington University in 1969 as a professor of philosophy in Arts and Sciences. He was named the David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities in 1979. He helped found the International Writers Center -- and became its first and present director -- in 1990.
Among the finalists in the criticism category were "Art for Art's Sake and Literary Life" by Gene H. Bell-Villada; "The True Story of the Novel" by Margaret Anne Doody; "The Love Affair as a Work of Art" by Dan Hofstadter; and "Fame and Folly" by Cynthia Ozick.
Washington University's Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and professor and director of the African and Afro-American Studies Program in Arts and Sciences, won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award in the criticism category for "The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature and Modern American Culture."
Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle comprises 650 book critics and editors. The organization's 24-member board of directors selected this year's award winners.
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