The National Book Award for fiction has been handed out yearly by the National Book Foundation since the early 1950s. While the majority of the time they get things right, just like any other organization they’re only human and they make their fair share of mistakes. This entry in the Favorite Fiction series catalogs ten titles we think were worthy of winning the prize. We’re not saying the Foundation got it wrong, but well, you be the judge…
1952: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
In 1952, Salinger’s classic novel lost out to From Here to Eternity by James Jones (a worthy winner). Still, The Catcher in the Rye manages to sell a whopping 250,000 copies annually and it’s subject Holden Caulfield is the fictional poster child for teenage angst. You should read this one for a lot of reasons, but at the top of our list is the fact that between 1961 and 1982 this gem was the most censored title in high schools and libraries across the United States, while in 1981 it earned the distinction of being the most censored AND the 2nd most taught book in public schools across the country. Go figure.
1959: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Speaking of banned books, this Nabokov classic, named one of the World Library’s 100 Best Books of All Time, lost out to The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud (yeah, we’re scratching our heads too.) What’s so brilliant about Lolita is the Russian born author’s beautiful use of the English language. What gets people up in arms is it’s subject matter: a professor who engages in a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old girl after becoming her step-father. Who among us isn’t familiar with the novel’s classic opening lines: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
1960: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Around here, we adore Shirley Jackson. In fact, we even wrote a tribute to her literary works last year, and while The Haunting of Hill House may not be our favorite of her novels, it more than earned a spot on the 1960 NBA nominees list. Jackson’s groundbreaking novel inspired a multitude of horror novels and films as it follows the events that take place in a haunted mansion inhabited by temporary guests. By this point, you’ve probably seen one of the many film adaptations of this classic novel, but we assure you, the book is better!
1966: Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
A three-time National Book Award loser, O’Connor would eventually be recognized in 1972 for The Complete Stories and again in 2009 in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the fiction award. In 1966, she lost out to The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, which also won the Pulitzer. What the reader gets in Everything That Rises Must Converge are nine brilliant stories written by O’Connor during the final years of her life, though only one was truly brand new. O’Connor wrote what could be considered Southern Gothic tales about morality, and those she offered up here rank amongst her finest.
1968: A Garden of Earthly Delights by Joyce Carol Oates
A Garden of Earthly Delights is the first novel in Joyce Carol Oates’s Wonderland Quartet. Originally published in 1967, this novel tells the story of Clara Walpole, who has struggled all her life to overcome a life of poverty and despair. Oates’s novel is a groundbreaking family saga that deals with controversial themes of sexuality, social stigmas, violence, and poverty. This book is utterly timeless and established Joyce Carol Oates as an important contributor to American literature. A Garden of Earthly Delights was nominated alongside Norman Mailer, Chaim Potok, and William Styron, but Thornton Wilder took home the prize that year for his 1967 novel, The Eighth Day.
1975: Sula by Toni Morrison
If you read our Toni Morrison Favorite Fiction post, then you know how much we appreciate Ms. Morrison’s work. This novel is set in the early 1900s and tells the story of the lifelong relationship between Sula and Nel, two girls whose friendship is challenged by social norms and family backgrounds. Dealing with issues like racism, sex, war, violence, and politics, Sula is no less controversial than Morrison’s more well-known works, such as Beloved and The Bluest Eye. While Morrison didn’t win the NBA in 1975, she went on to win both the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer, so we’re guessing that she isn’t complaining.
1989: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel may be one of the strangest, most hauntingly bizarre books we’ve ever encountered. Geek Love follows the Binewski family and the traveling carnival they operate. The Binewskis have five children, whom they purposely mutilated and disfigured to ensure that they have the most opulent carnie freak show in the country. Needless to say, some pretty dysfunctional family dynamics ensue as the Binewskis try to keep the family business afloat and simultaneously maintain personal lives. Even by today’s standards this novel is intensely peculiar and macabre, so it may have scared away the 1989 NBA judges.
2000: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
Oates’s epic piece of historical fiction offers a new perspective on the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. At nearly 1000 pages, Blonde is a hefty but rewarding piece of fiction. From Norma Jean Baker to the bombshell starlet better known as Marilyn Monroe, Oates traces the glamour, passion, trauma, and controversy that surrounded America’s most iconic sex symbol. This novel was also nominated for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and adapted into a CBS miniseries in the same year.
2011: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
In 2011, Obreht wrongly lost out to Jesmyn Ward’s Hurricane Katrina novel Salvage the Bones. Set in an undisclosed region of the war-torn Balkans, this tremendous debut novel is a hard piece of fiction to categorize. It’s gritty and realistic when it comes to dealing with war, disease, and death, yet at the same time it’s equally deft at seamlessly turning to the magical when it comes to two of the books central characters, the woman known only as “the tiger’s wife” and Gavran Gailé who is otherwise referred to as “the deathless man.”
2012: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
It happened yet again this year. Fountain’s novel reads like a winner, yet it lost out to an uneven piece of fiction titled The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Billy Lynn is a book that’s designed to push the reader out of their comfort zone by way of satire that attacks our love of the 24 hour news cycle, corporate greed, consumerism, and our need for the belief in a higher power that watches over and protects America’s every move. It should be a big old bummer, but there are so many wonderfully written laughs along the way that help to humanize and balance the story. Yes, you’ll be shaking your head, but you’ll also be smiling along the way, because Fountain’s debut novel is nothing short of impressive.
That’s our list! What are some of your favorite National Book Award nominees that you think were shortchanged when it came to winning the prize?