September 20, 2013

Pynchon, Lahiri among book award finalists

NEW YORK — Publishers hope that the new rules in place for the National Book Awards, for which the first-ever long-lists were announced this week, will lead to the kind of sales enjoyed by winners of Britain’s Man Booker Prize.

With fiction finalists announced Thursday including Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders and Jhumpa Lahiri, the long list features the kind of high-profile choices major publishers have been advocating for years, extends the nominating period by a month and doubles the pool of possible winners.

But publishers would surely settle for the success of the last work of fiction to win the National Book Award under the old rules: Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House.”

Erdrich’s novel about a sexual assault on an Indian reservation has sold more than 300,000 copies over the past year, by far the highest numbers during Erdrich’s three decades as a published author and likely to grow much more when the paperback comes out this fall. Erdrich’s editor at HarperCollins, Terry Karten, cites some print and online advertising, but gives much of the credit to the award itself.

“I do think her work is sometimes seen as inaccessible,” Karten says. “And one of the good things a prize like the National Book Award will do is that it encourages people to actually buy the book and read it. People seem to have discovered that she was not too difficult and they loved the book.”

Major New York publishers, several of whom are represented on the board of the National Book Foundation, which presents the awards, had complained that in recent years the fiction picks were too obscure and that sales suffered. With the Booker as a model, a long-list of 10 was introduced this year for each of the four competitive categories — fiction, nonfiction, young people’s literature and poetry — and judges were expanded beyond fellow writers to representatives from journalism, bookselling and libraries.

“We’re constantly thinking about how we can develop a larger audience,” said the foundation’s executive director, Harold Augenbraum.

The Bookers, meanwhile, are changing, too. Organizers announced this week that U.S. authors would be eligible for the prize, starting in 2014.

The National Book Awards have not had the consistent commercial power of the Bookers or the Pulitzer Prize, both of which typically generate hundreds of thousands of sales. But they have greatly helped established authors such as Erdrich and lesser known ones — authors whom publishers worry the public won’t care about — such as the 2011 fiction winner, “Salvage the Bones” novelist Jesmyn Ward. According to her editor at Bloomsbury, Kathy Belden, sales for “Salvage the Bones” increased tenfold after Ward’s victory, to more than 100,000 copies. And Ward has benefited in other ways: Colleges have added “Salvage the Bones” to their reading lists; the novel will be published in China in January and is already out in Germany; her new book, the memoir “Men We Reaped,” has been widely reviewed.

“The national recognition from winning the prize has also helped create a demand for Jesmyn to give talks, signings and lectures,” added Ward’s literary agent, Jennifer Lyons. “In addition, she has been receiving numerous requests to write stories, articles and opinion pieces.”

Publishers are unlikely to object to this year’s National Book Award fiction long-list, which also features Alice McDermott, James McBride and Rachel Kushner. Pynchon and McDermott are former National Book Award winners, Lahiri has won the Pulitzer Prize and Saunders is virtually the only short story writer whose books appear on best seller lists. McBride is already known for “The Color of Water” and Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers” was widely praised and publicized this year.

While some nominees in recent years had come from such smaller publishers as Wayne State University Press and McPherson and Co., all 10 fiction finalists announced Thursday came from New York City-based publishers.

The long-lists will be narrowed to five in each category next month. Winners will be announced Nov. 20 at a dinner and ceremony in Manhattan, when honorary prizes will be presented to E.L. Doctorow and Maya Angelou.

Thursday’s fiction choices capped an unusual week in which nominations were revealed like a serialized novel, with one category announced per day over a four-day period. Nominees already announced included Kate DiCamillo and Cynthia Kadohata for young people’s literature, Frank Bidart and Andrei Codrescu for poetry and Lawrence Wright and George Packer for nonfiction.

Pynchon, a National Book Award winner 40 years ago for the classic “Gravity’s Rainbow,” was nominated Thursday for the novel “Bleeding Edge,” set in Manhattan around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Saunders was cited for “Tenth of December,” already one of the year’s most praised works of fiction. Lahiri’s “The Lowland,” a nominee for the Booker, tells the story of two brothers from India who choose very different ways to live.

McBride was nominated for “The Good Lord Bird” and McDermott, whose “Charming Billy” won the fiction prize in 1998, for “Someone.” Also on the list were Elizabeth Graver’s “The End of the Point,” Anthony Marra’s debut novel “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” Joan Silber’s “Fools” and Tom Drury’s Pacific.”

Notable books that were bypassed included Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens,” Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” and Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs.”

Pynchon is already the favorite in one category: the nominee least likely to show up. The author has not made a public appearance in decades, not even to collect his award for “Gravity’s Rainbow.” The comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey accepted for him.


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