Looking back on the 2004 National Book Award

By posted at 8:18 pm on April 5, 2005 0

Some of you may recall that the 2004 National Book Award caused quite a stir in newspaper book pages as well as on lit blogs last fall. The judges were decried by some for picking five finalists whose similarities – that all five of them were women hailing from NYC – were hard to ignore, and whose lack of name recognition left many perplexed. Others applauded the judges for making a statement, whether they meant to or not, that a lot of good, award-worthy fiction is not getting the recognition it deserves.

With the announcement of the Pulitzer winner on Monday, the four major American fiction prizes (the other two are the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the PEN/Faulkner) have been awarded for 2004 and it’s possible to put the controversial NBA picks in perspective. For starters, I think it’s quite interesting that not a single NBA finalist was recognized by any of the other prizes. It’s possible that there was a backlash against the NBA finalists, but it’s more likely that this year the NBA judges simply took a different course than the rest of the literary establishment.

I was especially surprised to discover that Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer and NBCC Awards and finalist for the PEN/Faulkner was in fact eligible for the NBA this year, yet was not deemed worthy of even a finalist spot for that award. Now that all the votes have been tallied, it’s clear that the National Book Award judges tried to go in a different direction this year, and no one else followed.

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