From the Archives: Some words about the National Book Award

In anticipation of the 2018 National Book Award Longlist being announced on September 12, we are happy to bring you our post on the history of the National Book Award!  We hope you enjoy!



Just in case the excitement of the Man Booker Award wasn’t enough, I am delighted to tell you that the Bookish Award Season is in full swing, a fact which was emphasized by the announcement of the National Book Award nominees yesterday morning.

While most certainly a prestigious award, and indubitably beneficial to the authors who receive it, the National Book Award as an institution is a bit of an odd duck, in that is seems more concerned with its own identity, rather than the books it celebrates…

Eleanor Roosevelt, handing out the National Book Awards in 1950
Eleanor Roosevelt, handing out the National Book Awards in 1950

The National Book Award was instituted in 1936 by the American Booksellers Association, and open to any book published in that year, worldwide.  The award was suspended, however,  at the outbreak of the Second World War.  When it was re-instituted in 1950 by the ABA, the American Book Publishers Council, and the Book Manufacturers Institute, awards were limited to “works by Americans published here”, perhaps reflecting the rise of the United States on the global stage.  Categories were divided, re-united, re-named, and changed continuously up until 1980, when they were dismissed altogether in favor of the “American Book Award”.

The “American Book Award” was intended to run exactly like the Academy Awards, with a big fancy televised party, big-name stars, and some twenty-seven awards being handed out.  The whole enterprise cost so much money and was generally so confusing that it only lasted until 1987, before the awards’ organizers were forced to revamp their idea, and return to a handful of awards given out much more quietly.  Said the Chairman of the Awards at this time, “Book people are really not actors”.  Truer words have never been spoken.

nba_inviteToday, the National Book Awards hands out awards in four categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature, which overall, seems much saner.  In an attempt to revamp the awards’ prestige and notoriety, the NBA Foundation hired image consultants in 2012, and while the after-party for the awards is now, apparently The Place To Be, the award itself still seems to be undergoing a very long-term identity crisis.

Under the 1950 rules (which include the line about only  “Americans published here” can receive the award), only American publishers can nominate the books (it was only in the past two years that the publishers didn’t get to select the judges, as well).  Consequently, unlike most awards, which include a wide-ranging panel of experts and readers (the Booker Prize always has one librarian on it’s panel, I’m just going to point that out), there are some who have claimed that the NBA is the most insular literary award of the year.  The foundation claims that it is upholding the standards of American literature.

I can’t help but wonder if instead of asking “who gets to judge American literature”, maybe we should be asking “what, exactly, is American literature?”

And rather than worrying about trying to make the awards flashier, or grander, or handed out by higher-paid celebrities, how about we appreciate the books, the remarkable people who created them, and how much they have to say about who we are, as Americans, as a society, and as people in a world of people:



Karen E. Bender, Refund
Angela Flournoy, The Turner House
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Also a Man Booker Prize short-listed book!)


Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Sally Mann, Hold Still
Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus
Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran
Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light


Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine


Ali Benjamin, The Thing About Jellyfish
Laura Ruby, Bone Gap (Library approved!)
Steve Sheinkin, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
Neal Shusterman, Challenger Deep
Noelle Stevenson, Nimona

One thought on “From the Archives: Some words about the National Book Award”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *