Yes, the five finalists in fiction for the National Book Awards seem a little obscure this year. (Then again, they owe their sudden renown to an NBA nominating committee headed by die-hard experimental novelist Rick Moody, whom some wags are doubtless now decrying as the worst awards administrator of his generation.) But to be fair, the five novelists do all live in the capital of books. This year, the National Book Foundation decided for the first time in 55 years to go outside New York (all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota) to announce the finalists. “And what do we do?” asks foundation director Harold Augenbraum. “We end up with a parochial lineup. Who would expect that all five would be women from New York?” Certainly not Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, a first-time novelist living in Fort Greene.
“I thought I was getting cranked,” says the author of a cycle of dark, dreamlike fragments called Madeleine Is Sleeping (Harcourt). Bynum says she was especially dubious when Augenbraum told her he looked up her number online. The novel, which started out as a hypertext project, was “absolutely eviscerated” in a class at the Iowa Writers Workshop (though Establishment types like Stuart Dybeck and Marilynne Robinson took a shine to her there).
The foundation felt differently, though Bynum still isn’t sure why—“I think it’s an incredibly odd choice,” she says.
“I have to assume that these were the best five books that were submitted,” says Augenbraum, noting the top-secrecy of jury deliberations. The other finalists are Christine Schutt (Florida), Lily Tuck (The News From Paraguay), Joan Silber (Ideas of Heaven), and the best known of the bunch, Kate Walbert, whose Our Kind (Scribner)—a follow-up to the acclaimed Gardens of Kyoto—has sold around 8,000 copies. “Everyone shares this feeling that this moment is really interesting,” says Walbert, who recently met the other finalists. They also share a sudden interest in Amazon rankings. “I was in the six digits, I think, but now I’m in the three digits,” says Walbert. “But maybe by now it’ll be back down to four.”
Wouldn’t it be more interesting if, say, these novelists were up against name writers with acclaimed new works, such as Philip Roth or Cynthia Ozick? “I’m in a difficult position to answer that question,” says Walbert—who, at press time, was back to 2,426.