National Book Awards 2013: Fiction Finalists

National Book Awards

Criteria: The National Book Awards are presented to U.S. authors for books published in the United States roughly during the award year.

Mission: The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.

The shortlisted titles for the fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and young people’s fiction divisions of the National Book Awards were announced on the (lesser known?) American morning show Morning Joe. The group finalists is strong, if unsurprising: critics gushed about Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers all summer long, George Saunders toes the line between popularity and talent with the ease of a tightrope walker, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was just on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, and Thomas Pynchon is, well, Thomas Pynchon. It would be shocking if he didn’t make the cut. James McBride is perhaps the only surprise appearance on this list, though his Good Lord Bird has commended for its deft handling race and gender issues in the Antebellum South.

The National Book Awards must be one of the oldest literary prizes in the United States. Though it had a genre oriented predecessor that ran from 1935-1941, the awards as we know them were established in 1950. Previous winners and runners-up have included John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and a boatload of other household names. Until the mid sixties about ten finalists were shortlisted each year, which is quite a large pool, so the twist is that these authors were often going up head to head. In 1952 James Jones’ From Here to Eternity won over William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner, and Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp. Bonus: if you want a serious reality check, consider that Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus was pitted against William Faulkner’s Mansion in 1960 (Roth won that year). Recent winners and finalists include Marilynne Robinson, Junot Díaz, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan, Téa Obreht, and Jonathan Franzen. It has proven to be a decent barometer for the best of American literature, if an unpredictable instrument of measurement. For much of the prize’s history the number of finalists – and winners – has fluctuated, varying from up to 10 finalists to no finalist pool at all. Saul Bellow won uncontestedly for The Adventures of Augie March 1954; Thomas Pynchon and Isaac Bashevis Singer split the prize in 1975; 1984-6 saw only three titles named as finalists. For a brief, quizzical period the prize doled out a separate award for hardback and paperback fiction. But, again, in its recent history the prize has fallen into an even stride, as five finalists and one winner have been named for the past 27 consecutive years.

In the past the National Book Awards have been accused of being too niche and obscure with their winners, but this year they have taken these accusations head on (though you will be hard pressed to find any formal statements from the National Book Awards apart from this NPR interview) From this year awards are now given to four categories: Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Young Adult, and an additional long list of ten books is released before the list of five finalists. On top of that, the judging panels are now composed not just of writers, but of librarians, booksellers, and critics. With these measures in effect, they appear to be crossing their fingers for a prize that is both more visible to and comfortable for  American readers.

Bearing this in mind, the composition of the finalist list does not seem at all surprising: each title has enjoyed its fair share of popularity and critical acclaim. But Eric Obenauf, publisher and editor of the Two Dollar Radio press, contends that this list of finalists is uncreative and conservative: it plays into the hands of top publishing houses and sheds superfluous spotlight on well-established authors. He has no qualms with the writers themselves, but he finds the list oddly blinkered; in neglecting the plethora of budding small presses, the list seems out of touch with the current state of American literature.

..the longlist appears to represent where our literary culture was, not where it is or where it is going.

Obenauf’s point is fair, and typically we would see at least one small press book on a long list. One of acknowledged roles of literary prizes is the publicity it affords the honourees, so in excluding small press authors, the National Book Awards are neglecting to shed light on the more obscure corners of the publishing world. The decision to do so is unsurprising given they are in the midst of rebranding this year; by next year, perhaps, we will see one or two more small press authors included.

But, with the list we have, I would offer a humble prediction. Though The Bleeding Edge has not been considered Pynchon’s strongest work, it is nonetheless ruthlessly complex and topical, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pick up his second award in the tradition of Roth and McCarthy. But, on the other hand, Flamethrowers could reasonably called “the novel of the summer” and is definitely Kushner’s breakout hit; in its rise to popularity it stirred up all sorts of conversations on subjectivity and authorship. Pynchon may even have given her a leg up by revealing that he will not be attending the awards ceremony. The jury may wish to reward Kushner’s surmounting work, but even so, with the prize’s history of rewarding Nobel contenders Pynchon’s clout just might eliminate the competition.

The National Book Award winners will be announced Wednesday, November 19 at 7:00 EST.

Further Reading

The recent announcement in the New York Times that Pynchon won’t be attending the prize ceremony. But who will eat his baked tagliolini and tiramisu? via The New York Times

Initial coverage of the finalists, including those for poetry and nonfiction. via The New York Times

Watch David Steinberger make the official finalist announcement on Morning Joe. via MSNBC

Full lists of winners and finalists in all four categories are available on the National Book Foundation Website.

A live webcast will be streamed on the National Book Award’s site here, and live tweeted from their Twitter account @nationalbook

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