Ten Indie Titles the National Book Awards Overlooked

by Kristen Radtke and Michael Taeckens

As is seemingly inevitable, the unveiling of the National Book Award long lists this week generated as much fanfare as it did controversy, much of the latter having to do with the fact that nine out of ten writers on the nonfiction long list are white males (but, in all sincerity, a major huzzah for Roz Chast!). As Carolyn Kellogg rightly pointed out, however, the poetry and young people’s literature long lists were evenly split between male and female writers — and the fiction list, which was revealed after Kellog’s article was published, is likewise split.

There was also notable criticism directed at the lack of racial diversity among the nominees. One aspect that has gone without much notice, however, is the almost complete absence of small-press books among those in contention for the award. Out of all forty books on the long lists, only four of them — all poetry — were published by small presses: Graywolf Press, Letter Machine Press, and Nightboat Books. It seems particularly unfortunate that for the second year in a row, no small presses were represented in either the fiction or nonfiction categories.

There’s been much debate about what the National Book Awards are for and what kinds of books they should represent. We don’t wish to add to that here, but to instead applaud the many worthy writers on the long lists (the fiction list in particular is dazzling) and to also give a shout out to the many worthy books published by small presses this year. In that spirit, we asked an array of booksellers, critics, and writers alike which indie press books they would have liked to see on the long lists and compiled the top five in fiction and nonfiction. Any books that were not eligible for the National Book Award (e.g., author not a U.S. citizen, book published outside of date parameters for 2014) were excluded. (Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing [Coffee House Press] most certainly would have been on the fiction list below if she were a U.S. citizen.) Each book had to have at least two nominations to make the list; neither one of us participated in the nomination process.

The contributors include Amanda Bullock, Julie Buntin, Tobias Carroll, Josh Cook, Alex Crowley, Jason Diamond, Melissa Faliveno, Joe Fassler, Michele Filgate, Linnie Greene, Ami Greko, Gabe Habash, Liberty Hardy, Jynne Martin, Emily Russo Murtagh, Maud Newton, Kevin Nguyen, Steph Opitz, Bethanne Patrick, Rafe Posey, Emily Pullen, Annalisa Quinn, Rachel Riederer, Michael Schaub, Rick Simonson, Stephen Sparks, and Stacie Michelle Williams.

— Kristen Radtke (@KristenRadtke) and Michael Taeckens (@mtaeckens)

* * *


Empathy Exams

The Empathy Exams (Graywolf Press), Leslie Jamison

Loitering book cover

Loitering: New and Collected Essays* (Tin House), Charles D’Ambrosio

On Immunity

On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press), Eula Biss


The Other Side (Tin House), Lacy M. Johnson

Thrown book cover

Thrown (Sarabande Books), Kerry Howley


ancient oceans, kentucky, book cover

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky (Two Dollar Radio), David Connerly Nahm

painted cities

Painted Cities (McSweeney’s), Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski

Kyle Minor praying drunk

Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books), Kyle Minor

song of the shank

Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press), Jeffery Renard Allen

The wallcreeper book

The Wallcreeper (The Dorothy Project), Nell Zink

* Portions of Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering appeared in a book many years previous, but the Tin House edition includes much new and revised content.

Nota bene: The winners of The Firecracker Awards, sponsored by CLMP (Council of Literary Magazine and Presses) and exclusively reserved for books by small presses, will be announced in May 2015 at Book Expo America.

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