Finalists for the coveted National Book Awards were announced exclusively by NPR on Wednesday. The range of nominees was narrowed considerably to just 20 finalists across the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature.
Aside from the distinction and physical medal, the winners will receive a cash prize of $10,000 that will be awarded on Nov. 18 when the ceremony is held. The finalists have automatically been endowed $1,000 for making the top 20.
The traditionally heated contest for fiction seems to be swaying toward Hawaiian writer Hanya Yanagihara for her second novel “A Little Life.” The coming of age story was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, losing out to “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James. The other nominees in fiction include two collections, “Fortune Smiles” by Adam Johnson and “Refund” by Karen E. Bender, as well as novels “The Turner House” by Angle Flournoy and Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies.” None of the writers in contention for the prize have ever won the National Book Award or have qualified as finalists.
Carol Anshaw of the New York Times writes, “Yanagihara’s success in creating a deeply afflicted protagonist is offset by placing him in a world so unrealized it almost seems allegorical, with characters so flatly drawn they seem more representative of people than the actual thing.”
The race for nonfiction is seemingly less uncertain with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” which is written as a letter from the author to his son about the complicated reality that black Americans face in a contemporary United States. Interestingly, none of the candidates come primarily from a nonfiction writing background; Coates is a journalist and on his heels is photographer Sally Mann, whose memoir “Hold Still” is being praised for its use of photos.
In the poetry category, the only thing that is certain is that the poetry veteran heavyweight Terrance Hayes and his collection “How to Be Drawn” will be tough to beat. Others vying for the honor are Ross Gay for “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” Robin Coste Lewis for “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” Patrick Phillips for “Elegy for a Broken Machine” and “Bright Dead Things” by Ada Limón.
Of Limón’s collection, Los Angeles Review writer Brandon Amico said, “‘Bright Dead Things’ by Ada Limón is musical, emotional and honest, its verse muscular and unflinching…Limón’s poetry regularly rebukes the ironic mode commonly employed by a number of her contemporaries, and opts for unabashed and strong emotional language.”
Finally, in young adult works, one of the most interesting challengers is “Nimona” by the up-and-coming Noelle Stevenson. Stevenson is just 23, and what was once a bi-weekly comic posted online has become a sensation vastly different from other competitors including “The Thing About Jellyfish” by Ali Benjamin, “Bone Gap” by Laura Ruby, “Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War” by Steve Sheinkin and “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman.
One of the most coveted prizes in literature is very much up in the air in nearly all the categories. The judges, comprised of writers, literary scholars and critics, will have to work very diligently and decisively in order to select the deserving winner among a wealth of quality offerings.