The 2012 National Book Awards finalists were announced earlier this week, and to help us all make sense of the field of 20, PW's editors parsed through the selections to tell us what to expect come awards night.
Louisa Ermelino, reviews director: The fiction list is impressive, if not downright dazzling, with a surprise thrown in: Ben Fountain, whose funny but sobering novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, follows the survivors of a band of soldiers who saw action in Iraq as they tour America over one Thanksgiving day. We lauded it in our review, with reservations, and also noted that Kevin Powers’ powerful debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which we starred, is about soldiers and the effects of war. Powers fought in Iraq and writes of male friendship and violent battle in prose that veers heavily toward poetry. Looking back over the winners throughout the decades, there aren't many who haven’t gone on to have stellar careers, even if their winning book was the apex.
There were 311 submissions for 2012, now boiled down to five finalists, and beside the newbies are seasoned writers who have either been in this very place before (Louise Erdrich, twice if you count the Young People’s Literature category), or won that other big one (Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer) or taken the Renaissance man route (Dave Eggers, founder and editor of McSweeney’s). We have a soft spot for Erdrich, who burst upon the scene with Love Medicine and has continued to write about the Native Americans of her home state of North Dakota. The Round House, buzz has it, is her best work to date, which puts it over a very high bar. We might also note, she’s the lone woman here. Eggers has six previous books and his work is always an exploration, always with a strong point. With A Hologram for the King, he takes a failed middle aged American businessman to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in an original take on the dilemmas of present day America. And Diaz? What’s left to say about Diaz? A recent McArthur “Genius”, a media darling who never seems to miss a beat, and certainly not this time, with a collection (no less), This is How you Lose Her, featuring re-occurring character, Yunior, and projecting all the hubris and flash of Diaz himself. So who will it be? Powers or Fountain in a backlash against Diaz, combined with a desire to address the Iraq War in the way Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam novel, Paco’s Story, beat out Toni Morrison’s Beloved in 1987? Eggers who wears so many hats? Or Erdrich, slow and steady, close to a national treasure, her headline grabbing personal life behind her. And, don’t forget, a woman. I’m going with Erdrich. Give love a chance.
Mark Rotella, senior editor: In 2002 Robert Caro won the National Book Award for his third volume of his life of President Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate. The following year in 2003, the NBA nominated Ann Applebaum for her book Gulag: A History (though Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana took the award). This year both authors—both Pulitzer Prize winners—are back on the list as nominees: Caro with his fourth installment of Johnson, The Passage of Power (Knopf), and Applebaum with another study of Soviet history, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945–1956 (Doubleday).
Along with these two histories are two memoirs and a cultural study written by first-time book authors: House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Pulitzer Prize winning–author Anthony Shadid, a New York Times foreign correspondent who died earlier this year, and The Boy Kings of Texas (Lyons Press) by Domingo Martinez, who reflects on his upbringing in a 1980s Texas border town. Finally, Katherine Boo, who has received a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship for her journalism, glimpses into India with Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random).
Solid stuff here, but I’m leaning toward Applebaum getting the award her second time around.
Craig Teicher, poetry editor: I have to admit this finalist list perplexes me. Laying aside Meme by Susan Wheeler, which is my personal favorite and which, in fact, I blurbed, I'm surprised by the selections. The books are all well-written, all admirable, but they don't strike me as being particularly significant benchmarks in either the authors' careers or the overall field of poetry for the year. Of course, maybe the committee had other criteria, or, most likely, they don't agree with me, and there's no reason why they should.
But, it does seem to me that a number of very significant books by very significant authors--D.A. Powell, Jorie Graham, and Natasha Trethewey, not to mention career-spanning collections by Jack Gilbert, Lucille Clifton and Louise Gluck, to name a few--were left off the list. These lists are hard to compile, and there are many factors the committees consider in the privacy of their discussions. I'm happy for the finalists and hope they are enjoying this honor, but I have no idea who the committee will finally choose as the winner.
Young People's Literature
John A. Sellers, children’s reviews editor: It’s a pretty serious-minded group of finalists in the Young People’s Literature category this year. Meth addiction, endangered bonobos/civil uprising, the Khmer Rouge, the development of the atomic bomb—even the seeming outlier in the Grim Reality department, Goblin Secrets, is set in a world in which theatrical performance is forbidden.
There’s certainly been some buzz this year around Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down, Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered, and Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb, though I’ll admit I was also glad to see a pair of debut novelists in the mix, William Alexander for the aforementioned Goblin Secrets and Carrie Arcos for Out of Reach. I don’t think any of these books can be ruled out: debut authors have taken home the award two years running (Thanhha Lai and Kathryn Erskine), and a work of nonfiction, Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, won the year before that. The fantasy element in Goblin Secrets could be an edge, as could the international settings for Never Fall Down and Endangered. Plus, this is Patricia McCormick’s second time as a finalist, after Sold in 2006.
Congrats to all of the finalists, in any case. I can’t wait to see who gets the nod on November 14. Now if only the category could get a less clunky name...