Monday, October 17, 2011

National Book Awards 2011 Announced

2011 National Book Award Fiction Finalists

Earlier this week, the finalists for all categories were announced.
Andrew Krivak, The Sojourn
Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife (my review here)
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
I've previously reviewed The Tiger's Wife and also have read two and a half of the other finalists (The Sojourn, The Buddha in the Attic and Binocular Vision).  I'll post reviews of the others later.  Of the four books I have read, you cannot go wrong with any of them. I suspect that this is a showdown between the newcomer, Téa Obreht, and an under-appreciated old-timer, Edith Pearlman.

What is interesting about the list is that although all of the books are great, other than The Tiger's Wife none of them have been part of the mainstream literary conversation.  In addition, many critically and popularly acclaimed  books did not make the list; for example, The Art of Fielding, The Marriage Plot, State of Wonder.  The blogosphere is lit up with the question: should literary prizes consider a books success in the media and with readers in making their selection or should it be an "ivory tower" selection (NPR's view here and Laura Miller of Salon here) .  Two years ago one of my favorites, Let the Great World Spin won the prize and had already achieved critical and popular success.  Last year, a dark horse, Lord of Misrule won and then disappeared while Franzen's Freedom didn't even make the list.

Even if a book is the equivalent of literary broccoli, literary prizes can unearth under-marketed and undiscovered talent.  Edith Pearlman is a perfect example.  If you read the introduction to the collection, written by Ann Patchett, she marvels that Pearlman has not be received by a wider audience.  A win with a prize like the National Book Award exposes her to an audience that might not have seen her.  If ultimately she does not have broad appeal, the book will fade into the backlists (e.g., Lord of Misrule).  Commercial success should be considered but should not drive these lists.

For the nonfiction readers, the finalists are:

2011 National Book Awards Nonfiction Finalists
Deborah Baker, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism
Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution 
Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
Lauren Redniss, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout
Winners will be announced at the awards ceremony at Ciprani Wall Street on November 16.  John Lithgow is hosting.

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