Ozick, a four-time nominee, won in the criticism category for her collection Quarrel & Quandary, which includes essays on everything from the transcendence of poetry to the commercialization of The Diary of Anne Frank.
An acclaimed novelist and nonfiction writer who has never had great popular success, Ozick praised her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for sticking with her.
"What could be more midlist, or lowlist, than a collection of essays?" Ozick said.
Finalists in the criticism category included Jacques Barzun, who at age 92 became a best-selling author with From Dawn to Decadence, an 800-page survey of Western Civilization. Barzun also was a runner-up last fall for the National Book Award.
Britain's Jim Crace was cited for the novel Being Dead, which features the decaying corpses of two married zoologists murdered on the sand dunes of a British seaside town. Crace, author of several well-regarded books, was chosen over a pair of better-known writers: Zadie Smith, who at age 24 emerged as one of the world's most acclaimed young novelists with her debut, White Teeth, and Michael Chabon, author of a fanciful tale about comic books, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Crace did not attend the ceremony, and apparently saw no need to. But just in case he had sent an e-mail statement, read by editor John Glusman.
"It is a rather ghostly experience, writing this note of gratitude for a literary prize which I will probably not receive and which is being announced in my absence, while I'm tucked up in bed three thousand miles away," his e-mail said.
Also Monday, Herbert P. Bix was cited for his biography Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan and Ted Conover won for general nonfiction for his prison expose NewJack: Guarding Sing Sing. Conover, who worked as a guard to gain access to the maximum-security facility, said he hoped his book would help tear down "the inexcusable wall of secrecy and of ignorance" that has grown around the prison system.
Judy Jordan won for her poetry collection Carolina Ghost Woods, in which she mourns the deaths of friends, family members and others.
The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, is a not-for-profit organization of book editors and critics with 750 members nationwide. No cash prizes are given for the awards.
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