Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett for EW
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November 19, 2018 at 06:15 PM EST

They may not have musical numbers and morning-after fashion assessments (thank God), but the awards circuit for books is plenty dramatic. Here’s our take on this year’s race among fiction.

The Heavyweights

Lauren Groff’s edgy short-story collection Florida and Rebecca Makkai’s sweeping historical novel The Great Believers have been frontrunners all season, with Florida making the short list for the eclectic Kirkus Prize and Believers for the relatively mainstream Andrew Carnegie Medal. More importantly, both were named finalists for the National Book Award (NBA) — publishing’s biggest prize for American authors — before losing to an out-of-the-box choice. (More on that later.) Then there are the NBA-ineligible power players, most notably Washington Black, from Canada’s Esi Edugyan. A harrowing epic about slavery and freedom, it’s already a Carnegie and Man Booker Prize finalist — hitting that awards-friendly sweet spot of artistic and social value. As for what won the Booker: Anna Burns’ elliptical Milkman, publishing stateside next month.

The Ingenue

Move over, Saoirse Ronan — we’ve got a new trendy young artist to spotlight. In September, Britain’s Daisy Johnson became the youngest author ever nominated for the Booker Prize, the U.K.’s highest literary honor. She got the call for her risky first novel, Everything Under, a gender-bending retelling of Oedipus.

The Game-Changers

Not unlike show business, the literary world can be a bit stuffy when it comes to who attends its year-end galas. But a few always break the mold. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, dystopian Friday Black is 2018’s avant-garde darling — the Get Out or Mad Max: Fury Road, if you will — with a Carnegie longlisting and a special NBA “5 Under 35” honor for its author. Also freshly exploring black life in America is Nafissa Thompson-Spires, whose darkly comic debut, Heads of the Colored People, ranked as a Kirkus Prize finalist. And don’t forget Tommy Orange — the breakout in a breakthrough year for Native American writers. His novel There There is a Car­negie nominee and was long-listed for the National Book Award.

The Snubs

In the they were robbed! category: Rachel Kushner, an NBA finalist for her first two novels, was somehow ignored altogether for her blistering prison drama The Mars Room. (Compensation: She’s a first-time Booker nominee.) Just as Oscar hates straying too far from typical contenders — no Dark Knight for Best Picture? no James Franco for his wild Spring Breakers turn? — Ottessa Moshfegh’s satirical tour de force My Year of Rest and Relaxation has been unjustly dismissed. And why the persistent genre bias? Madeline Miller’s Greek goddess saga Circe deserves more than it’s gotten. At least Hollywood knows a thing or two about ignoring-by-labeling — we’re still smarting over those Creed snubs.

The Workhorse Award

The Oscars love a good career achievement award — Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour this year; infamous bridesmaid Glenn Close for The Wife (maybe) next year — and publishing is no different. The 2018 choice? Sigrid Nunez. She’d been published for more than 20 years before netting her first NBA nomination this year — and then unexpectedly won the coveted prize for fiction. It helps that her new book, The Friend, is a literary insider’s dream: Nunez layers it with specific humor about the book world she’s been in for so long. Hollywood can’t resist movies about movies — remember when Birdman went all the way? — and, similarly, writers fall for books about writing every time. And what could be more Hollywood than narcissism?

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Read EW’s reviews of 2018’s major literary awards contenders:

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