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77 novels for 60 years

July 13, 2009 |  8:32 am


The National Book Foundation, celebrating its 60th anniversary, is running a series celebrating the 77 novels that have won its fiction award -- or rather, awards. Because obviously somebody got fancy in there if they ended up with 17 more winning books than there have been years.

Blogger Mark Athitakis has summed up the multiple-awards history of the National Book Awards, which involved a kind of publishers' mutiny after the 1979 awards, which some said focused on too-obscure books. The awards were renamed the American Book Awards in 1980, and instead of having just one fiction award, there were several: for fiction, mystery, western and science fiction, in hardcover and paperback. The shift was met with skepticism; Norman Mailer and Philip Roth withdrew books from consideration. Even the winners were unimpressed: William F. Buckley dripped sarcasm, and poet Peter Viereck called the ceremony a "plastic Disneyland extravaganza." The next year, the number of awards was winnowed down; a first-fiction award would continue to pop up through the mid-'80s.

This year, there will be awards in what have become the standard four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature. The finalists will be announced on Oct. 14, and the winners at a ceremony in New York on Nov. 18.

But before that happens, the 77 books are acting as a kind of countdown. Beginning last week, the foundation began posting notes on each award-winning novel -- if you subscribe to the blog via RSS, they'll pop into your reader daily -- from notable authors. And in September, a short list of six favorites will be posted on the NBA's website and be open to a public vote for the best of the best.

That last bit -- a public vote! -- may be a nerve-wracking move for an organization whose past flirtation with popular fiction didn't go so well. But I think they can trust the voters -- because sometimes democracy works. May the best book win.

--Carolyn Kellogg