The Book Slut contributor Hunter Mclendon started a newsletter called ‘Shelf by Shelf,’ a deep dive about his journey into every book longlisted by the National Book Award in the U.S. He’s been so gracious as to share his thoughts here on this year’s 2021 Fiction longlist and winner. Read below for his take, leave a comment, and definitely subscribe to Shelf by Shelf for more of Hunter’s insightful words.
I’m writing this the morning after the 72nd National Book Awards, where Hell of a Book by Jason Mott was announced the winner for Fiction. This didn’t come as a surprise, as the book is compelling, hilarious, heartbreaking, and well-written—but the longlist as a whole was surprising and polarizing to most everyone I talked to, when it first dropped back in September. People were frustrated over the omission of such books as Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor, and Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri, and many balked at the inclusion of books like Bewilderment by Richard Powers and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. The response to this years’ longlist made me think about our general understanding of book awards, the reasons we are so passionately for or against any particular book, and what this list says about our cultural mindset and the themes and ideas we’re grappling with in this moment.
I think there’s a misconception about what kind of books the National Book Awards tends to look for. Some people think they’re looking for the next ‘Great American Novel,’ while others consider the award to highlight certain social issues of the time. From my own understanding, given the information available on their website, this particular award is looking to celebrate the best writing in America. That’s it. Unlike the Pulitzer, which looks to books that ‘preferably deal with American life,’ or the PEN/Bellwether Prize, that focuses on ‘socially engaged fiction,’ the NBA is solely focused on whether or not the books are the best-written of that year.
This distinction is necessary, I think, because while many of the books featured every year directly comment on social issues and many of them are set in America, by assuming that those are prerequisites, we’re already writing off the books listed that don’t fit those requirements. Several major contenders over the years, including this years’ Matrix and Intimacies, don’t take place in America. Books like The Souvenir Museum, Zorrie, and Cloud Cuckoo Land, don’t overtly discuss certain political issues—they do, just in different ways. But all of these books are well crafted; they’re either challenging structurally or carefully stitched together line by line, formed with such care that it’s impossible to ignore, even for the more casual observer.
I do think other books were overlooked this year—in the same way that the Oscars sometimes overlooks great performances and films just because they’re more quiet or underseen, book awards do seem to have their Meryl Streeps—but I like to believe that the judges (and National Book Foundation) do their best to truly award those that they feel are doing new and exciting things, that are truly doing the best work. While there were certain books I more closely identified with or that I loved on a deeper level, I can recognize that the dialogue could be clunky or that the themes being explored were a bit too on the nose. Sometimes books can be nearly perfect and also not as tied to our hearts, and books we love can be deeply flawed. These are things I’ve often found hard to reckon with each year, when the longlist drops.
Going back to this idea of ‘socially conscious’ books, I think it’s important to remember that pretty much every book ever written will feel engaged in some kind of social issue, that it will feel political in some way. It’s nothing new to say that being human is inherently political—I keep thinking back to this section in Patrick Nathan’s Image Control, which came out this year, where he talks about how we have this idea about politics being a system only, something that we can separate ourselves from and how that’s not the case. By our very nature, our existence is political. Because of this, every book is going to engage with these ideas in their own way. But I think there’s a difference between a book that deals with certain social issues and a book that’s about that specific thing. I don’t think one is any worse than the other.
My main issue around this has nothing to do with the books themselves but the way audiences are reading these books. This year, so much of the praise I saw for The Prophets, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, and Hell of a Book, were by non-black readers talking about how it helped them understand the Black experience. I have many frustrations with this, but specifically relating to this award, you’re not allowing the authors of these books to just be praised on their artistic merit. This was actually a major issue on #bookstagram last year, where a bunch of white readers decided to finally read books by Black authors, not because they realized there was actually a glaring omission in their reading, but because their white guilt made them feel like they needed to understand another’s experience. And while I do think every book offers that, I think that if we aren’t acknowledging the artistic merits of these writers, what are we doing?
When we read books like Fates and Furies or The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, we’re discussing the work on an artistic level—and yes, part of that is the ways that these books handle their subject matter, but to put such a heavy emphasis on the ‘importance’ of books like The Nickel Boys and Sing Unburied Sing—not because of their artistic achievements but because of how they help us as readers to address our own ignorance—implies that we only see worth in the stories that we think educate us, that are about the trauma endured by marginalized communities.
Of course, I’m not putting total responsibility on the reader, here. Publishing has to answer for its own sins. Statistics are still popping up that show just how white the industry is, how the majority of the stories being told are still by white writers, and it’s worth questioning the motivations behind the books by authors of color that publishing IS choosing to highlight. What does it say about this business that, in some ways, they’re profiting off of the atrocities happening in the world by utilizing it in their marketing, by pointing out how ‘timely’ these stories are, when they hadn’t considered backing these projects until the last few years?
Publishing may finally be amplifying more diverse stories, but they still seem to be neglecting stories by marginalized writers that lean into joy or anything existing outside of trauma. This impacts which stories we as a general audience are consuming, and also, I think, which books get noticed for awards. There’s more to grapple with here than I can really wrap my head around, but it is something that continues to be on my mind.
I know it seems like some of this feels irrelevant to a discussion of the longlist, but I know that all of these things have factored into how I have engaged with the books in past years—a lot of what I’m criticizing now only comes from an act of self-interrogation, because I used to have these misconceptions about all of this myself. We don’t read in a vacuum—the outside world does, in fact, inform our reception.
In regards to my own reception to this year’s longlist, it’s been a bit all over the place. When books I have already read and loved end up on the longlist—see Intimacies, The Prophets, Bewilderment, and Matrix—I am thrilled. But it also means that whichever books I haven’t already read, I’m approaching them with a much more critical eye. It’s unfair, in some ways, because what we end up doing is demanding these books prove to us why they’re here instead of our favorites—upon opening The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken (the only short story collection on the list), I immediately questioned why it earned its spot over other collections, like Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz and Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor.
Out of all of the books, I think I was most hard on The Souvenir Museum—it’s a book that didn’t resonate with me as a reader, and I wasn’t sure what exactly it had to say. But I did re-read it, before writing this piece, and in this second reading, realized just how brilliant McCracken is. The way she writes about this one couple, Jack and Sadie, throughout several of the stories, captures the nuanced and complicated nature of a long-term relationship in all its multitudes, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone do this so well. I still struggled with connecting to some stories, and I wasn’t entirely smitten with the book as a whole, but I recognize why it has its place in the longlist.
Zorrie was one of those books I would have loved, had I read it before the longlist dropped. It’s quiet and beautiful, and extremely well-written—the comp to Elizabeth Strout is accurate—but it was the second to last book I read from the longlist, and I had already become fatigued, like I hadn’t caught my second wind during a marathon. I compared this book to the quiet, understated performance Helen Hunt was nominated for in the film The Sessions. The other books were more in line with Anne Hathaway’s Les Mis performance. One isn’t better than the other, but I think it can be easier to overlook something understated when our attention span has already reached a weak state.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is admittedly good, very well structured and enjoyable—this one and Hell of a Book might be the two most commercially appealing of the bunch—but CCL isn’t for me as a reader. I know I keep saying this, but it’s because I want to make it clear that just because a book isn’t for me doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. I think this book is great and would recommend it to most people I know—it just didn’t scratch that itch for me.
Abundance was an underdog in this race, and I know several readers who were excited when it made the longlist. Jakob Guanzon has a real understanding of the experience of living in poverty, and I found myself squirming in my seat as I recognized so much of these experiences from my own childhood with my Momma—I always have complicated feelings when I recognize the experiences unfolding on the page, and this time was no different. I was annoyed by the many readers who touted this book as a wake-up call to those living in poverty, because it reminded me of when I used to befriend rich kids at school and how their parents would use me as an example of why they had to be nice to those of lesser means. But the response of readers like that has little if anything to do with the quality of the book, and separate from that, I do think the book is good. I believe it could’ve worked just as well as a short story or novella, but thought the idea to structure the chapters with how much money was in Henry’s pocket worked in creating a propulsive energy that carries you to the end.
The Prophets might have been the first book of 2021 to receive any buzz around the National Book Award—it was the second book I read this year, and I remember thinking it had to make the list. In my initial review, I wrote that –It’s gorgeously written, fluid in its telling, heartbreaking and thought provoking and investing. While symphonic, exploring the stories of many, the heart of the story lies in the queer romance between Samuel and Isaiah—jones explores the ways that the intersections of identity can lead to another layer of struggle, even within your own community. He expands our ideas of structural and narrative storytelling to capture the experience that is too expansive to rely on a more traditional mode. –I clearly have a deep love and appreciation for what this book is doing, and while I think it became a bit unwieldy at times, it’s impressive and so worthy of recognition.
A book I went in expecting to dislike—or at least find hard to read—was Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I’d started two of his other books and was a bit overwhelmed with how dense they were. But I was delighted by this one and thought it was captivating and beautifully explored the relationship between a father and son. There are moments it gets a little untidy and I wasn’t sure if it the ending landed just right, but I have a fondness for this one, and it was one of the few that struck an emotional chord.
The Love Songs of W. E.B. Du Bois is the one people were anxious about, just because of its size. However, when I finished, I thought it warranted its 800 pages. The story is so expansive and it’s filled with so many characters—but despite everything that happens, I was invested the whole time. I ended up loving this one when I was done. You can tell Jeffers is a poet, because the writing is exquisite, and I think this reads like a modern classic in many ways—like, in my head, I picture one of those great 1950’s books. I like that. Also most people don’t know how to actually write a big book and Jeffers does.
One of the books I was most impressed with this year was Intimacies by Katie Kitamura—It’s one of the best written books of the year, and I was floored by just how effective Kitamura is. Her prose is informed by the subject matter, playing with our own intimate relationship to the story, and there’s nothing more brilliant than that. This is one of those books that I read and thought, everyone should read this, to know what good writing really is.
My queen, Lauren Groff, appears on this list for a third time, with Matrix—a book about nuns in France. It is surprisingly super readable, despite the subject matter, and I think Groff’s love of George Eliot is more apparent here than ever. There were many moments where I could see the same quiet wisdom and structural brilliance, and I love when I can see a writers inspirations in ways that aren’t maybe intentional but just grow naturally out of a place of love and admiration. While Fates and Furies will always be my favorite, I have such a deep respect for what Groff continues to be able to pull off, and yes I am biased because she is my queen, but I can also say that she is one of the greatest writers of the past fifty years and you can fight me on it.
Now, for the winner, Hell of a Book—I wasn’t sure what to expect, initially, but as I listened to the audiobook on my way to work one morning, I found myself cackling every other minute. I rarely laugh at books. I spent more time in my car that week than I had in months, just because I wanted to see where the story went. By Saturday, I had a hundred pages left, and I picked up my physical copy and tore through it. The end of this book made me weep harder than I have over any book in the last six years. I couldn’t keep it in. There is such a structural brilliance to Mott’s book that is hard to articulate. It’s smart and funny and devastating and a master class in balancing tone and converging stories. I think it is deeply impressive.
This book also speaks to the very frustrations I’ve been trying to articulate in this newsletter. The writer protagonist of Hell of a Book is struggling to reconcile the kind of artist he wants to be and the stories he wants to tell with the expectations of the publishing world and the wants of the general reader. Of course the novel deals with much more than that, but I do think this question is prevalent throughout and makes you consider everything else with a new lens.
With the National Book Award for fiction, the winner doesn’t always end up being the book that is the most ‘enjoyable’ to read, or the most ‘heart tugging’—but this year, with Hell of a Book, I think they found a book that really does it all. I’m happy this book won because I think it is deserving of what the award is looking for—the best written book by an American writer. And what is a better written book than one that manages the almost impossible feat of being a Hell of a Book?
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