September 18, 2014

The fiction longlist for the National Book Award is here


Hours after releasing a controversial nonfiction longlist that included only one woman (and nine men), the National Book Awards released its longlist for fiction. The list first appeared on The Huffington Post, where it was quickly taken down; it was published on the New York Times website a few minutes later. The longlisted books are:

Over the last two years, the National Book Awards has attempted to make the longlist more commercially relevant. In 2013, the Associated Press spoke to Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic and Vice President of the NBA about the changes:

Entrekin said that some of the recent National Book Award fiction lists, which usually get the most attention, had been “very eccentric” and that allowing critics and booksellers as judges could open up the process. The results, he thinks, will be a “little more mainstream,” and less likely to include “a collection of stories by a university press.”

“I think there are plenty of awards that recognize those kinds of books,” Entrekin said. “If one of those books is truly the best book of the year, that’s no problem. But it seemed like the judges had been recognizing lesser-known authors for the sake of choosing lesser-known authors.”

Speaking to the New York Times in November of 2012, Entrekin explained the decision further by comparing the NBA to the Man Booker, “When a book is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, it sells another 50,000 copies. It can transform the fate of a book… The winner of National Book Awards succeeds. But I would like to see it have that kind of effect on the shortlist as well.”

Last year’s longlist reflected that shift: not a single book published by a small press made the cut, but heavy-hitters like Thomas PynchonJhumpa Lahiri, and George Saunders did. The shortlist, which included those three writers, along with Rachel Kushner and James McBride was even less eccentric; McBride, himself a bestselling author, ended up taking home the prize for The Good Lord Bird

In the new National Book Awards, pedigree was more important than ever before in deciding what was (and wasn’t) long- and short-listed, but it wasn’t the only factor. Though dominated by big names, last year’s lonflist attempted to balance bestselling literary fiction with that written by lesser-known authors. Longlisted authors Tom Drury, Elizabeth Graver, and Anthony Marra all received less (in some cases, significantly less) attention than the four authors listed above, and, while Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (also shortlisted) was a consensus best book of the year, it was also a second novel by a relatively unknown writer. (Alice McDermott, who also made the longlist, was something of an exception: more of a household name than one group, less of a juggernaut than the other.) 

Still, despite the inclusion of writers like Marra and Kushner, last year’s longlist was a disappointment. Pynchon, Lahiri, and Saunders had already dominated critical coverage in 2013; they overshadowed the competition once again when the longlist was released. And, while the inclusion of lesser-known books helped to balance the list, it still felt tepid and unsurprising, especially considering the prize’s history—one thinks of Jaimy Gordon winning the prize in 2010 for Lord of Misrule, when Jonathan Franzen’s consensus book-of-the-century Freedom didn’t even make the shortlist. It was a dull, safe list that marked the emergence of a National Book Awards that seemed somewhat uncomfortable in its own skin. On one hand, there was an intense desire to have a greater cultural impact, to be a kingmaker, to, well, sell some fucking books. On the other hand, it’s difficult to assert cultural relevance when many of the books on your shortlist are already widely seen as being culturally relevant, when the authors on that shortlist are already anointed, when their books already sell extremely well. Finally, the decision to omit the “eccentric” and focus on cultural relevance was also a decision to omit the unknown. But if you want cultural relevance and conversation, should you privilege well-known books and authors, even if they’ve received a mixed critical reception?

Looking at this year’s longlist, last year’s looks like the product of something of an identity crisis. It’s more confident and self-assured, with a better balance the established, the more-established, and the about-to-be-established. Of the ten novelists who made the longlist, Powers, Robinson, and Smiley have had the longest careers are the probably the best-known—Robinson and Smiley have each won the Pulitzer, while Powers won the National Book Award in 2006; each has a nearly impeachable reputation. Molly Antopol and Phil Klay, who both published acclaimed (and exceptional) short story collections and John Darnielle whose (also exceptional) Wolf in White Van was published yesterday, are all debut authors. Rabih Alameddine, Anthony Doerr, Elizabeth McCracken, and Emily St. John Mandel sit between the two groups, having each published a handful of well-regarded books.

Unlike last year, when Lahiri, Pynchon, and Saunders overshadowed the field, none of these ten books threatens to dominate the coverage, or to run away with the award. Powers, Robinson, and Smiley have each written a bestseller, but none can really compete with the trinity mentioned above. (Robinson comes the closest, but when it comes to Marilynne Robinson, speaking of such things seems almost vulgar.) Darnielle, though a first-timer, may actually be the most famous writer on the list, though his popularity comes from his work as a songwriter and musician in The Mountain Goats. A few of these books will undoubtedly emerge as favorites, but it’s incredibly difficult to guess the ones that will, in part because critical reception and reputation clearly outweigh sales and popularity in this year’s longlist. It is, in other words, a staggeringly equal list—especially compared to last year’s, when the shortlist seemed more or less inevitable—though, of course, some books are more equal than others.

It is still a safe list though—every book on the list has either been widely-acclaimed or is by someone whose reputation writes checks that the longlist-inclusion can cash. But it feels more consistent and more deserving: a worthy summation of the year in American fiction, and a list that is very hard to argue with. These are books that have not only been a part of critical discourse or can expect to be a part of it shortly, but books for which a positive critical consensus has formed around. It’s a list that seems to have resolved the dilemma between the popularity/pedigree of the author and the merit of the work in favor of the merit of the work (with a dash of pedigree). It’s a list that is not controversial. All of which is fine.

But the avoidance of small presses is curious and disappointing, for a number of reasons. I understand that Jaimy Gordon can’t win the NBA every year and that giving the prize to books that few people have read or reviewed (like Gordon’s Lord of Misrule) can damage the prize’s legitimacy. Everyone wins when the National Book Awards is culturally and economically relevant—when it’s influencing people to buy books. But there are books published by small presses that would have fit perfectly onto this list, without raising questions or changing the integrity or structure of the list—that’s not to suggest that I think the omission of small press books is conscious, only that it’s unnecessary, regardless of what kind of list you’re trying to build.  But the avoidance of the unknown and the unannointed—two things synonymous with small presses—is also disappointing. American literary culture is, and always has been, about more than just the mainstream and it would be nice to see the NBA recognize works that are pushing and driving that culture. This is a robust list and a step forward; I just don’t want to see small presses left behind.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.