Fresh Faces Abound on the National Book Awards Longlist

Many of the contenders for the National Book Foundation’s fiction award are debut authors and indie publishers

Updated October 3 to include the finalists—see below.

The National Book Awards fiction longlist is out, and it may not look how you expected. That’s partly because of the absence of hard-hitters like Paul Auster and George Saunders, both of whom have new novels that were shortlisted for the Man Booker prize this week. But it’s also because a full 40 percent of the semifinalists are first-time authors published by either independent or university presses.

Of course, there are big names too—notably Jesmyn Ward, who won this award in 2011 for her novel Salvage the Bones, and is in the running again for this year’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. (Perhaps even more impressively, her short story from A Public Space was printed in Recommended Reading.) Jennifer Egan, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is also on the list for her upcoming Manhattan Beach.

But it’s not just 2011 all over again. The deluge of debuts includes Carmen Maria Machado’s dark and intricate short story collection Her Body and Other Parties; Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, about a boy whose undocumented Chinese immigrant mother goes missing; Margaret Wilkerton Sexton’s New Orleans family saga A Kind of Freedom; and Carol Zoref’s Barren Island, about immigrants working in a horse-rendering plant in an island off New York. These first-timers are published by, respectively, three independent presses and a university press: Graywolf, Algonquin, Counterpoint, and New Issues Poetry & Prose. Another longlisted book, Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma, was also put out by independent publisher Grove.

We asked Machado, who’s written for Electric Literature in the past, what it was like to have a first-time book in the running for such a prestigious award. She gave us a pretty unfiltered reaction: “I, uh, can’t believe this is happening? But I’m so fucking grateful to everyone at Graywolf and my agent Kent Wolf for believing in my weird beautiful little book.” Machado also drew attention to the longlist’s diversity, not only in terms of publishing history but also experience and voice: “I’m really honored that the NBA judges are giving recognition to women, queer folks, people of color, small presses, debut books, and short story collections. As a debut author, I definitely was not expecting this. I guess I’d imagined that if something like the National Book Awards was in the cards for me, I’d be working my way up to it over the course of my career, if that makes sense. So… I’m in shock. But it’s a good kind of shock.”

The judges (Alexander Chee, Dave Eggers, Annie Philbrick, Karolina Waclawiak, and Jacqueline Woodson) will now go into chambers; the finalists will be announced on October 4, and the award on November 15. Chances are still better than even that it’ll be someone whose work you already know, from one of the more established publishing houses. But those chances are definitely not as high as they usually are.

Here’s the whole list:

Elliot Ackerman, “Dark at the Crossing” (Knopf/Penguin Random House)

Daniel Alarcón, “The King Is Always Above the People: Stories” (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House)

Charmaine Craig, “Miss Burma” (Grove Press/Grove Atlantic)

Jennifer Egan, “Manhattan Beach” (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Lisa Ko, “The Leavers” (Algonquin Books/Workman)

Min Jin Lee, “Pachinko” (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette)

Carmen Maria Machado, “Her Body and Other Parties: Stories” (Graywolf Press)

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, “A Kind of Freedom” (Counterpoint Press)

Jesmyn Ward, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Carol Zoref, “Barren Island” (New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Update:

The shortlist has now been announced, and the finalists are:

Elliot Ackerman, “Dark at the Crossing”

Lisa Ko, “The Leavers”

Min Jin Lee, “Pachinko”

Carmen Maria Machado, “Her Body and Other Parties: Stories”

Jesmyn Ward, “Sing, Unburied, Sing”

Two debut authors, two indies, four women, and only one white guy! No matter who wins, we kind of all win in that sense. (But the actual winner will be announced at the ceremony on November 15.)

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