What Do This Year’s Wildly Disparate National Book Award Longlists Mean?

If you like awards, this week has been super-fun, between the MacArthur “Genius” Grants (shout out Alison Bechdel!) and the National Book Awards’ longlists in the young adult fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and fiction categories.

After yesterday’s announcement of a weirdly dispiriting and irrelevant list of nonfiction National Book Awards finalists, today’s fiction finalists have seemingly righted the ship: instead of a collection of hefty dad books about war and history with only one book by a woman, it’s a very different group of ten books, spanning three short story collections; one beautiful dystopian novel; and the upcoming, likely religiously sublime release by Marilynne Robinson. It’s also split 50/50 along gender lines.

  • Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press/ Grove/Atlantic)
  • Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner/ Simon & Schuster)
  • Phil Klay, Redeployment (The Penguin Press/ Penguin Group (USA))
  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)
  • Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories (The Dial Press/ Random House)
  • Richard Powers, Orfeo (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Jane Smiley, Some Luck (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)

This is a good list, and most of all, it feels like a relevant list, featuring some of the best and most talked-about books of the year. It’s exciting to see someone like Emily St. John Mandel — who previously wrote well-received, noirish books — jump onto a national stage. The idea that The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle can sit next to debut writers like Phil Klay and Molly Antopol and classics like Richard Powers and Jane Smiley is thrilling. It’s not perfect — it skews white, certainly — but it does feel like it’s concerned with the world, and not just the past.

That was the thing what shocked me the most about the nonfiction longlist: just how disconnected it felt from the issues and ideas that are inflaming us at the moment. Some of that could’ve been rectified with mentions of, oh, I don’t know, a New York Times bestseller like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams? Or Jen Percy’s haunting Demon Camp? (Despite Twitter’s vocal love of Eula Biss’ upcoming On Immunity — which is, above all, an important book, as LA’s shameful immunization rates in rich areas prove — I can see why its style or voice could put off some readers.)

So what’s to make of the disparity between the two lists? I suppose it stems from the disparity between the readers making the decisions in each category, and the fact that when you come down to it, these judges are just people following their interests. It’s a yearly frustration, really — awards are subjective at their heart, and depending on the mix of judges, the final list could be lame or sublime. Much of the time, for better or worse, that list will be very different from both the books that the media falls for and the books that people are actually reading. Awards are at their worst when the choices are boring, and despite the fact that awards feel like a judgement on “the best,” they are often a reflection of just what some people in a room could agree on.

Look at the history of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has ignored the vibrant and the essential throughout its run. Partially, that’s because five Swedish guys in a room are making the decision, Swedishly. There’s been a lack of American winners (Toni Morrison in 1993) because, according to the Swedish Academy, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” They’re not wrong; this is a very fair and even-handed and Swedish way to look at an industry that has very strong American exports. Due to the Swedes’ love of throwing the prize around, many American writers who’ve done decades of great work haven’t gotten a Nobel. Is it a bummer? For Philip Roth, yes.

When it comes to the life and lifespan of a book, awards do matter, for both the art and the artist. They make buyers buy it and readers pay more attention to it. And because of what awards can bring to the life of a book and a writer, there really is a moral component to pointing out that a committee got it wrong (even though a committee will inevitably get it wrong at least as often as they get it right). If an awards committee messes it up, yell at a cloud, do it with vigor. But remember that, at the heart of it, any sort of prize is subject to human choices; despite the fact that the act of reading can be its own act of building community, of seeing how similar or different we all are in our human experiences, it takes awards to remind us of how truly singular each person’s reading experience can be.