The National Book Awards: What Gives?

Sigh: It’s happened again. I don’t want to rag on any of the nominees picked by the National Book Award judges, but I’m simply stunned by some of the omissions. Where is Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey’s monumental biography of John Cheever, which received raves everywhere, including this magazine? It redefined biography for me. Where is Dave Cullen’s Columbine, or Robin Romm’s searing The Mercy Papers? Where is David Mazzuchelli’s stunning graphic novel, Asterios Polyp? (For that matter, why does the NBA continues to largely ignore the graphic novel category, even though some of the best, most imaginative work is being done in that genre? I see Stitches received a YA nod, but…). Where is Abraham Verghese’s incredible Cutting for Stone? Stephanie Kallos’ lyrical novel Sing Them Home? Laurie Scheck’s A Monster’s Notes? Jonathan Tropper’s big-hearted family drama, This Is Where I Leave You? Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely think the NBA panels should look for small, overlooked books, especially those that come from small presses. But the list of nominees looks inconsequential — and the NBA looks a little silly — when the year’s truly great books are nowhere to be seen.

What do you think? Are there any books you think are missing, or are you pleased with the nominees?

Comments (26 total) Add your comment
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  • ks

    I have to agree, I believe it is all subjective which means many great authors are being left out.
    But like with the movies, we are being dumbed down with some of these nominees

  • Sarah

    Maybe you could post the nominees? Or at least provide a link?

  • Chris

    Wait a minute, you mean John Cheever is a real author? I thought he was just the guy who had an affair with Susan’s father on Seinfeld…

  • Patty

    I picked up Tropper’s book, largely on the strength of EW’s glowing review. I’m not saying it was the worst book I ever read, but it ranks. The fact that the NBA nominating committee ignored this over-hyped mess gives me hope that the books they did honor might be worth a look.

  • Harold Augenbraum

    I don’t understand the fascination with what is missing. Why not focus on what the judges have chosen, not what they didn’t?

    Harold Augenbraum
    National Book Foundation

    • Tina Jordan

      I was careful not to denigrate any of the books. I’ve read some of this year’s nominees and loved them — In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was one of my favorites. My point, perhaps clumsily made, was that the NBA is acting more and more like the Nobels, going with increasingly obscure (and, frankly, inferior) works that don’t hold a candle to some titles that weren’t nominated. Also, the politicking on the panels between judges seems especially fierce — and that’s never a good thing.

  • Tricia

    It’s kinda like the Academy Awards: most of the Best Picture nominations are for movies that no one sees, and it looks like most of the NBA nominations are for books no one reads.

    The whole “if it’s popular with the masses then it must be trash” mentality is alive and well.

  • Stephanie Kallos

    All I can say is, I’m thrilled to see SING THEM HOME mentioned alongside such brilliant company. Thanks very much for the shout-out.

  • ronhogan

    Oh, I’m DYING to hear which nominations “ks” thinks represent a “dumbing down” of the National Book Awards.

  • jo

    Dave Cullen’s books is not there because it’s listed in the wrong category. It should have been in the fiction category.

  • DW

    Columbine is an amazing book and deserves to be nominated. Not sure why some wingnuts would consider it “fiction,” but it’s best not to feed the trolls.

  • Laurie

    I just had my moron moment for the day when reading this post. My first thought was what does basketball have to do with book awards. If anyone else liked Cheever you should check out the authors series on in reference to his family’s post Katrina experience. Eye opening.

  • Jim

    Thousands upon thousands of books get published every year. No one can possibly read them all. And even if they did, how do you decide what’s great and what’s not? Is having an audience really ANY barometer of quality? The poster of this mentions books that they seem to think should have been included but doesn’t mention if they’ve read ANY of what make the list of finalists. Unless you’re prepared to read the finalists and say what should have been nominated in place of other titles, it seems that you don’t have a point.

    • Tina Jordan

      I have read all of the fiction except American Salvage and all of the nonfiction except The Poison King. So no — not the complete list, but enough, I thought, to comment.

  • Mary

    I read All the Living based on your recommendation and I’m saddened to see that it didn’t make the list. Such a serious book on the weightiest matters and so unusually written.
    But I do think it’s good to be introduced to books that perhaps don’t get reviewed in major magazines, books published by smaller presses, etc. Looking forward to reading a few of these in the coming month.

  • jo


    I’m not a troll. I researched Columbine in depth for many years. It’s fiction at best.

    • ericalina

      What makes your research true and Dave Cullen’s false? I am asking in all seriousness, as I really thought that was a mindblowing book.

      • jojo55

        Thank you for your interest. First I have to say I very much like Dave Cullen’s writing style. This book is very well written. Unfortunately, his book is filled with embellishments and out and out falsehoods claiming the truth. If you are really interested in the truth about Columbine Alan Prendergast at Westword is one of the best authorities. Jeff Kass’ book is also good and factual although it’s a tough read.

      • ericalina

        jo, thanks for responding! i will check out jeff kass’ book as well as alan prendergast. it’s one of those events that i just can’t wrap my head around and so i am happy to read as much as I can about it.

  • Christopher

    Why, oh why, has Lips Touch Three Times been nominated in the youth literature category?!? This has been a tremendous year for youth literature (both children’s and YA) and the NBA committee picks one of the most confounding, confusing and altogether indecipherable novels for young people of the year? Where’s “Love Aubrey”, “The Evolution of Calpernia Tate”, “When You Reach Me”, “Almost Astronauts”, Kristin Cashore’s “Fire”, Justine Larbalestier’s “Liar”?!? All very worthy novels over “Lips Touch…”

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