Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Predicting the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Here is the post which I promised a week and a half ago: my predictions of the National Book Critic Circle Award finalists, which will be announced Saturday evening, January 21st.

If you are unfamiliar with the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) award, and you haven’t read my “background” information post, please do so. 

One major factor about NBCC award for fiction that I mentioned: Unlike other major American literary awards, novels (and short story collections) in translation and those in English by non-American authors are both eligible. 

Of the novels which I especially enjoyed in 2011, the vast majority received critical acclaim and appeared on bestseller lists. (See my post on my favorite books of 2011.) Yet, amongst the NBCC finalists from previous years, there are numerous examples of books which went somewhat unnoticed before being honored by the judging panel. For this reason, I don’t expect to pick more than three out of five finalists correctly. Still, I was committed to making predictions.

The following factors impacted my predictions: 

     1) The judging panel seems to choose at least one book in translation each year. 

     2) The judging panel seems to choose at least one book in English by a non-American author each year. 

     3) In 23 of the last 33 years, one of finalists (by an American author) has gone on to win the Pulitzer.

Without further ado, here are my picks: 
     Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending 

     Patrick de Witt, The Sisters Brothers 

     Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding 

     Haruki Murakami, 1Q84  

     Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife 

Part of the reason why I am not confident in my picks is because all of these books are “too obvious."

Consider the following:

     -Two have already won literary awards, The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize and The Tiger’s Wife won the Orange Prize. (It was also a finalist for the National Book Award.) 

     -The Art of Fielding received more press coverage (beyond reviews) than many other recent novels, in large part due to the huge advance that Harbach received.  Also, along with The Tiger’s Wife, it was one of the New York Times’ top ten books of the year. 

     -1Q84 was so highly anticipated that some stores held midnight release parties.  

     -The Sisters Brothers was short-listed for the Booker Prize. 

Still, these are all books which I truly enjoyed and I think are worthy of being honored. (I should note: I have not read The Sisters Brothers. I have included it here on a gut feeling alone.) 

I wish that I could have found a “sleeper” book to include in my predictions – I have little doubt that there will be one – but I couldn’t find one. I’m excited to see what sleeper the committee picks, in part because at least twice in the past ten years such a book has gone on to win the Pulitzer - The Known World by Edward P. Jones (the eventual winner for 2003) and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (a finalist for 2009). 

The main reason why I included The Art of Fielding is because I think it could win the Pulitzer, but I am less convinced than I was before. (I marked it as my “current frontrunner” in my favorite books of the year post on December  31st, linked above.)  I plan to write more about the Pulitzer in future posts -- it is not announced until April -- but I wanted to note that the description of the prize states that the winning piece of fiction should “preferably deal with American life.” There have been few (if any) winning books that took place wholly outside the United States with non-American characters. (There have been some winning books dealing with Americans living abroad.) If not for this fact, I might say that The Tiger's Wife could win, but with no American characters and no action in the United States, I feel it is unlikely. It is a shame that the prize is not simply given to "the best work of fiction by an American author."

Do you have any picks? Remember the factors that I noted above. Did you read a book in translation (published in 2011) that you loved? How about a book in English by a non-American author? Is there a book that you think might win the Pulitzer?

Please, share your thoughts in the comments.

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