National Book Award finalists: Year of the dark horses

In fiction, the trend away from big names continues.

Topics: National Book Awards, Books,

The 1999 National Book Award finalists were announced Wednesday:

Andre Dubus III, “House of Sand and Fog” (W.W. Norton & Company)
Kent Haruf, “Plainsong” (Alfred A. Knopf)
Patricia Henley, “Hummingbird House” (MacMurray & Beck)
Ha Jin, “Waiting” (Pantheon Books)
Jean Thompson, “Who Do You Love” (Harcourt Brace & Company)


Natalie Angier, “Woman: An Intimate Geography” (A Peter Davison Book / Houghton Mifflin Company)
Mark Bowden, “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War” (Atlantic Monthly Press)
John W. Dower, “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II” (W.W. Norton & Company/The New Press)
John Phillip Santos, “Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation” (Viking)
Judith Thurman, “Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette” (Alfred A. Knopf)

Ai, “Vice: New & Selected Poems” (W.W. Norton & Company)
Louise Gl|ck, “Vita Nova” (The Ecco Press)
Clarence Major, “Configurations: New & Selected Poems 1958-1998″ (Copper Canyon Press)
Sherod Santos, “The Pilot Star Elegies” (W.W. Norton & Company)
C.K. Williams, “Repair” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Laurie Halse Anderson, “Speak” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Louise Erdrich, “The Birchbark House” (Hyperion Books for Children)
Kimberly Willis Holt, “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” (Henry Holt and Company)
Polly Horvath, “The Trolls” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Walter Dean Myers, “Monster” (HarperCollins)

The list of finalists for fiction, the most closely watched and highly prized of the awards, indicates that last year’s trend away from “big” books continues. Of course, it’s a bit of a stretch to talk about trends with the National Book Awards — every year entirely new panels of five judges in each category select the winners. (This year, however, for the award’s 50th anniversary, National Book Foundation executive director Neil Baldwin chose panels made up of judges who have previously served.) This year’s fiction panel is chaired by Charles Johnson and includes Dorothy Allison, Allegra Goodman, Terry McMillan and Scott Spencer — each probably a more familiar name to the average American reader of literary fiction than any of the finalists.

Nevertheless, the usual sprinkling of well-known authors who have been either heavily promoted by their publishers or extravagantly celebrated in the press (last year’s fiction finalists included Robert Stone and Tom Wolfe) is notably missing from this year’s batch. “Definitely in the past few years the awards have been moving towards a sort of surprise selection,” confirms Marie Arana, editor of the Washington Post Book World.

And truth be told, 1999 has been a year remarkably devoid of new works of fiction published by marquee literary lions. Baldwin says that the journalists he’s talked to are focusing, for lack of a better angle, on the snubbing of Edmund Morris’ semi-fictionalized Ronald Reagan biography, “Dutch,” and Frank McCourt’s memoir “‘Tis” in the nonfiction category. Baldwin expressed exasperation at what he sees as the assumption that the NBA’s attention ought to be directed at such well-publicized bestsellers. “It’s the National Book Award,” he observed tartly, “not the National Book Reward.”

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

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