The National Book Awards Pick a Roster of Little-Known Novelists With Big Voices

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The National Book Award finalists have been announced, and while the nonfiction nominees include such expected choices as Robert A. Caro’s Master of the Senate, the fiction picks are raising industry eyebrows. ”It’s an extremely weird list,” says one editor at a major house. ”There’s almost no buzz about any of the books.”

Which may have been the point. As NBA officials proudly noted, none of the fiction finalists have published ”more than one other novel.” As for buzz, perhaps those insiders need to watch more morning TV. Julia Glass’ first novel, Three Junes, was a Good Morning America book-club pick, and Adam Haslett’s debut short-story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, was selected by Jonathan Franzen for the Today show book club. Franzen, last year’s fiction winner for The Corrections, also blurbed nominee Mark Costello’s Secret Service tale, Big If. Brad Watson’s Southern gothic The Heaven of Mercury and the family drama Gorgeous Lies, a second novel by Martha McPhee, daughter of celebrated essayist John McPhee, round out the list.

If insiders were puzzled, at least two of the nominees were shocked. ”I think I used all my cell-phone minutes in [one] afternoon,” says Haslett. ”I felt actual flabbergastation,” says Costello, adding that most books ”don’t get to have a life. They have shelf lives. It would be great if this brought new readers to…the finalists.”

Conspicuously absent were such talked-about titles as Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. ”It does seem they’re looking for books that didn’t get attention,” says Bob Contant, co-owner of Manhattan’s St. Mark’s Bookshop. ”That’s the only conclusion I can come to.” Winners will be announced Nov. 20.

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