Pynchon, Saunders and Lahiri Are among National Book Award Finalists

By Italie, Hillel | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), September 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

Pynchon, Saunders and Lahiri Are among National Book Award Finalists


Italie, Hillel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


NEW YORK -- Publishers hope that the new rules in place for the National Book Awards, for which the first-ever long lists were announced last 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."

Ms. 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 her three decades as a published author and likely to grow much more when the paperback comes out this fall. Ms. 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," Ms. 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 next year.

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 Ms. 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 Ms. Ward's victory, to more than 100,000 copies. And Ms. 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. …

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