Which novels are the heavyweights? Which first-time novelists the breakouts? Indulge us as we break down all of the trends this awards season...for books

By David Canfield
November 25, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
Illustration by Ryan Snook for EW

Awards season loves a good controversy and that doesn’t just go for Hollywood. This fall, amid the frenzy of festival premieres and guild screenings and early Oscar prediction lists, no one has courted a backlash quite like the judges for the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for English-language…books. The 2019 panel named two winners for the first time in 27 years — a literary icon (Margaret Atwood) and a relative unknown (Bernardine Evaristo) — and observers were not pleased. “You had one job,” Washington Post critic Ron Charles tweeted. “What Happened?” cried a headline in the local Times Literary Supplement. To Oscar watchers, this may feel like a small drama. But to book lovers, it’s the marker of the beginning to their own twisty cycle of wins and losses, upsets and snubs. Here’s a cheat sheet to get you in on the fun.

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

Let’s start with Atwood’s The Testaments, her Booker-winning sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. In topping the New York Times best-seller list and getting a very splashy rollout akin to Michelle Obama’s Becoming, the novel at first seemed like more of a commercial play. But as with a Black Panther or Get Out on the movies side, sometimes that popular success translates to hardware, too. It’s a prescient read, not unlike the rest of the novels dominating the conversation: Colson Whitehead’s Jim Crow-era The Nickel Boys, Valeria Luiselli’s family border drama Lost Children Archive, and Laila Lalami’s immigration-focused crime saga The Other Americans have all scored at least two nods from among the National Book Award, the leading U.S. literary prize; the consensus-driven Carnegie Medal; and the relatively quirky — Golden Globe-esque? — Kirkus Prize.

THE INGENUE

Sally Rooney is riding a very long awards tail for her sophomore novel, Normal People. The 28-year-old Irish superstar was nominated for last year’s Booker Prize, given the time of the book’s U.K. release, and is up for this season’s Carnegie Medal. (Note: Non-American authors are ineligible for the NBA.) Her trajectory feels a little like J. Law’s at the height of her breakout: Will there ever be a time when she isn’t up for something?

THE RULE BREAKERS

A pair of audacious debuts may read unconventionally, but voters are embracing their originality. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, autofiction formatted as an intimate letter to the protagonist’s (illiterate) mother, is an unexpected powerhouse, finding love across the board; Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, a literary thriller composed of linked short stories, is an NBA finalist. The NBA winner, meanwhile, was Susan Choi, whose provocative new novel Trust Exercise divisively offers up a wholly original (and twisty) structure that has divided readers but enamored critics. And we should include (co-)Booker winner Evaristo here, too: For her novel Girl, Woman, Other, a bold meditation on race and gender), she became the first black woman to ever receive the prize — partly why her split with Atwood was met with such strong criticism.

THE SNUBS

No awards season is complete without the unjustly ignored. Similar to film snobbery, genre bias persists here: Ted Chiang’s sci-fi collection Exhalation and Helen Phillips’ horror novel The Need deserve better. And whither Elizabeth McCracken’s bizarro American epic Bowlaway? Was it released too early, like so many Oscar near-contenders? Consider this our official FYC.

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