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‘Tis the (Literary Prize) season: Look beyond the big-name titles to find works you are not as familiar with

  • 3 min to read
2021 National Book Awards.png

The winners of the 2021 National Book Awards will be announced on Wednesday, Nov. 17. Pictured here are the 25 National Book Awards short list finalists from each of its five categories (fiction, nonfiction, translated literature, poetry, and young people’s literature).

In this age of plenty, with more books being published than ever, choosing what to read isn’t easy. A trusted bookseller, friend, or reviewer’s recommendation might be more consistently reliable, but there’s also something to be said for keeping an eye on the big literary prizes for some guidance.

This would certainly be the time of year for it: not all of them are packed into these weeks — the Pulitzers will be announced in the spring — but it sure feels like the height of literary prize season. From the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature at the beginning of October through the Booker Prize, the most prestigious English-language novel award, on Nov. 3 and to the National Book Awards ceremony on Nov. 17, there is a near constant stream of authors and books getting those official stamps of the highest approval, domestically and abroad.

Some of the usual ceremonial pomp surrounding many of these prizes again falls by the wayside this year, thanks to COVID-19 — the National Book Awards will be held online; the white-tie Nobel banquet has been cancelled, the laureates not invited to Stockholm to collect their medals and diplomas — but we can still focus on what really matters: the books. (And, before the winners are announced, there’s still that frisson of excitement of the competition.)

While the Pulitzers only disclose the names of the two other finalists when each winner is announced, most awards reveal who is in the closer running long before a winner is named, with long- and shortlists of contenders. It’s easy to get hung up just on whoever claims the prize, but these are worth tracking too. Prizes may be subjective, but these lists have at least some claims to including the cream of the year’s literary crop; the titles here can’t just be dismissed as also-rans.

The National Book Awards’ well-publicized 10-title-strong longlists in each of its five categories (fiction, nonfiction, translated literature, poetry, and young people’s literature), for example, offers at least some titles that should pique any reader’s interest — including some surprising ones. Often, prize juries defy expectations and they certainly have here, as widely hailed new books by Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Franzen, and Louise Erdrich didn’t even make the longlist in the fiction category. Meanwhile, Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest was among the books making the Booker longlist but didn’t make the cut for the final six. Having heard enough about these big-name titles elsewhere I, for one, am pleased to be pointed to works by authors I am not as familiar with. I’ll have to see whether or not Jason Mott’s "Hell of a Book" can live up to its title, but I don’t know that I would have even been aware of it were it not for it making that National Book Award shortlist.

Many of the bigger American prizes, including both the National Book Awards and Pulitzers, have multiple categories — covering more reading tastes and interests — and, helpfully, there are specialized prizes in what seems like every imaginable genre and subject. (Be on the lookout for the Royal Society Science Book Prize or the Cundill History Prize, for example, naming winners on Nov. 29 and Dec. 2, respectively.) For me, the novel remains king, and it’s the prizes for best novel that I pay closest attention to.

The Booker opened up to all authors writing in English a few years ago (after previously being more or less limited to those from the Commonwealth), cementing its place as the most important English-language novel prize — and with a payout of £50,000 is also one of the richer ones. True, it can’t compare to the Spanish Premio Planeta, which just announced that it was raising the winning payout to a staggering €1,000,000 (split between three authors this year, a trio of collaborators behind a single pseudonym), but prize-money isn’t everything. The winner of the top French novel prize, the Prix Goncourt (announced Nov. 3), gets a check that even they acknowledge is merely symbolic, for all of €10 — but the sales boost any book winning this prestigious prize is certain to get ensures that the author reaps a financial bounty as well. (Last year’s winner, Hervé Le Tellier’s "The Anomaly" has sold over a million copies in France alone — an almost unheard of amount in that market.)

The National Book Award-winners, and this year’s Booker Prize will be prominently displayed on bookstore shelves this fall— along with, I hope, many of the short — and longlisted titles. The works of this year’s Nobel laureate, Abdulrazak Gurnah, should be found there as well, once those have been rushed back into print.

And then there are the books that took the foreign prizes, which only come to us with a bit of a time lag — translation takes time — but are often well worth the wait. The batch of recent winners now appearing in translation looks particularly promising: the Goncourt-winning "The Anomaly" sounds like great fun and is due out in late November. In early December we get the 2019 German Book Prize-winner by Saša Stanišić, "Where You Come From," and then in January we’ll see the winner of the biggest Italian novel prize, the Premio Strega, last year, Sandro Veronesi’s acclaimed "The Hummingbird."

Sure, one should also always look beyond the big prize winners, and beyond even the short- and longlists, but they do make for a good starting point for some very good reading.

Michael Orthofer has been reviewing books and reporting on literary news at his website, the Complete Review (www.complete-review.com), for more than 20 years. He can also be found on Twitter at @MAOrthofer.

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