If I Were A Book Judge…
In which I discuss the books I would have chosen for the National Book Award for Fiction.
Hi Y’all! Glad you’re here—
For the past decade, one of my dreams has been to be on the judging panel for the National Book Award for Fiction. Each year, as I make my way through my TBR (to-be-read), I take notes and discuss each book with other readers, to gain a sense of whether or not it has a real possibility of landing on the NBA longlist. I consider the prose, the structure, the characters and plot, if it’s been done better before. I like to think of myself as a person with good taste, who can be objective, that can see merit even in the books I don’t personally enjoy. And while I’ve never guessed a full ten out of ten, I have gotten pretty close. You could say I take this all too seriously, but I like to think of it as preparation for the (fingers-crossed) eventual opportunity of being welcomed into the fold. Until that time, I thought it would be fun to discuss some of the books that might have landed on a longlist, had I been a judge.
I’m actually starting with a book that was on this year’s ‘5 under 35’ list, but that I also think deserved to be longlisted, and that’s the collection Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz. This might be the book I re-read the most often throughout 2021, just because it offers so much to you as a reader. Her work perfectly evokes a sense of place, capturing the moody and unpredictable nature of the Florida landscape, and the way she writes about girlhood and womanhood is nuanced and understated. Upon finishing each story, I would close my eyes and see the white hot burn of the afterimage she’d left us with in the end. She mentioned in several interviews that she was a fan of White Oleander by Janet Fitch—a personal favorite of mine—and I think they share a certain DNA. This collection also reminded me of Florida by my queen, Lauren Groff, and I think they could be read as companion pieces. If you enjoy Fitch, Groff, or Danielle Evans, you’ll enjoy this one.
Another collection I was obsessed with was Brandon Taylor’s Filthy Animals. In my initial review, I described the collection as a mood piece, an observation of the complicated intimacies between lovers, strangers and friends. You can see the influence of Patricia Highsmith and Jane Austen here, in ways that are unexpected and exciting. I also think Taylor writes about the body in ways that allow us to inhabit these characters on a physical level, and I don’t think that’s an easy feat. He has a near-perfect understanding of rhythm, and he writes beyond just the sentence. Sometimes writers will write beautiful one-liners, but Taylor realizes how his work exists both as a whole and the sum of its parts. I have a deep admiration for Taylor’s work, and I will read whatever he writes forever and ever amen.
A few novels I enjoyed this year were Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead—shortlisted for the Booker prize—My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee, and Virtue by Hermione Hoby. I think Great Circle and My Year Abroad are both successful in similar ways, being that these authors have a clear understanding of how big books work. They create fully realized worlds for their characters, but they also utilize the extra page count to more fully live inside the smaller, more intimate moments. Great Circle has a really captivating story and characters you fall in love with. My Year Abroad is structurally exciting with almost every moment perfectly articulated. And as far as Virtue goes, Hoby has written what I would almost consider a companion piece to Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid—Virtue has that same delicious, soapy drama of people finding themselves in tense situations, but it’s also a book that examines white privilege in ways I don’t think we see that often from white writers. I thought it was both smart and compelling. (Also, if you haven’t read Such A Fun Age, do so—I couldn’t put it down)
I’m sure there were many other great books this year that flew under my radar, but as far as the books I read, these were the ones I thought most likely to be longlisted. I can’t even say for sure if all of them were eligible—I was a hoe and didn’t check—but they seemed like the kind of books the award is drawn to each year.
Moving on to 2020, I found this a particularly hard year to predict, given the fact that the world fell apart, but I remember being shocked by certain omissions. While I was actually very happy with the longlist in the end, I still think some books were equally deserving.
As I’ve already said, I think Brandon Taylor is a genius, and his novel Real Life (which was short-listed for the Booker) was one of my top picks for the NBA last year. There’s something really exciting about the way his influences shape his work, but without it ever feeling like some type of replication. Virginia Woolf might be the most noticeable in this one. I also think he writes character drama really well, and there’s this one character who was such trash I still seethe whenever I think of her. Ugh. The worst. Anyway, a really great book.
Two books I really enjoyed last year that I think went a bit overlooked during awards season were Kept Animals by Kate Milliken and Shiner by Amy Jo Burns—both are well-written and somehow share connective tissue, despite being very different on the surface. Kept Animals is one of those books where it feels like, somehow, the whole world fits inside. And the ending is so precise—not a perfect bow, but a perfect distillation of everything that’s come before it. Shiner has a similar feeling of someone capturing the fullness of a life, but of a completely different experience. Burns writing feels like a song you’ve heard before, where you almost know the words and it makes you wanna go back to where you’ve been. Maybe that’s what these two do so we’ll, really, is capture a feeling of nostalgia, but in the least obvious of ways.
Thinking of collections I really loved last year, one that immediately comes to mind is The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. There is something mind-blowing about what she is able to do in a story, and I find that her work takes Munro’s effective use of time and combines it with an energetic, spiky voice to create something both deeply layered and compelling. That collection, along with Peter Kispert’s I Know You Know Who I Am are the two that have stuck with me the most. Kispert (who is a regulation hottie, as Janice Ian would say) writes with such clarity, and the way he articulated his ideas helped me in having a deeper understanding of myself. He accurately portrays the many ways we can be dishonest with ourselves and others, and it is both startling and enlightening.
A book that I love last year, that seemed to have a mixed reception with general readers, was Memorial by Bryan Washington. I can see how this book might not work for everyone, but I think Washington writes such lively characters, and he has a great ear for dialogue. This book had me captivating from the first page, and I wept when it was over. It continues to be a favorite.
The Death of Vivek Oji is another book I thought could have made the longlist last year, but I was annoyed when Freshwater didn’t make the list when it came out, either—though it did end up on the ‘5 under 35’. We often talk about writers coming fully formed, and that’s what it felt like reading Freshwater—there’s such a strong voice and a beautiful observation of humanity, showcasing experiences we never really see. I think Akwaeke Emezi is a major talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they won the Nobel Prize in Literature someday.
While not many books from 2019 stuck with me, one that did was Naamah by Sarah Blake. I have raved about this book since gulping it down in one sitting at the beginning of that year, and still consider it one of my personal favorites. This book is so well-written and intriguing, and I found it surprisingly funny and weird. In some ways, it actually reminds me of A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet—which was short listed in 2020, and Matrix by Lauren Groff, short listed this year. Blake’s background as a poet is evident here, both from a structural and narrative standpoint, and while I think it goes into some weird places, it never feels contrived. She also managed to convey the claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in one place that only resonates more deeply since the Pandemic began.
A writer whose work I think should win all of the awards is Alexander Chee. Both Edinburgh and The Queen of The Night were absolute perfection, so perfectly structured and clear. He writes about music in both of these novels, and according to my friend, Kate Storhoff—who has a PhD in musicology—it’s done with great accuracy. If you somehow haven’t read his work already, I think it’s a must. I fell hard for him back in 2018, and have stayed with him since. Also if he ever wanted to be brother husband’s, I would not be opposed.
Because Graywolf often pops up on the longlists—thinking about Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and this years’ Abundance—I would have loved to have seen Patrick Nathan’s Some Hell longlisted in 2018. I thought it was one of those quiet, searing novels that one just doesn’t expect. This is a novel filled with darkness, which maybe isn’t for everybody, but I almost found it comforting. His writing is stellar, and the ending! Just delicious. Patrick Nathan is one of those writers who makes me excited to see what he’ll right next, because I just know it’ll be brilliant and unexpected.
The last book I’ll mention for now is My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I loved this book, and I think it was one of the best books to come out in 2018—I just remember being blown away by how she was able to pull off making a story about someone who spends most of their time asleep into something compelling and somewhat devastating. Also, she creates this final image in your head that’s hard to shake. While I was actually really happy with the 2018 longlist, this is one I would have loved to have made an appearance.
It’s hard not to just go on and on about all of the books I loved, hard not to include books that might not have realistically made it but that won me over anyway. I know it’s probably snobby—maybe elitist?—to try and say that a book is more worthy of this award simply because it managed to do more on a technical level than another book that might actually be more successful commercially. But I think that we should be able to discuss different types of success—to say that a book can be good because it makes you happy as a reader, it can be good because it is well-written and successful in what it’s doing technically, and that books can be both of those things. I don’t know, I do continue to grapple with all of these ideas without any clear answer on how to reconcile them. But I think that’s part of why I’m doing this project next year. To figure all of that out.