West and Grand

The 2016 National Book Awards and a Comment on the Endurance of Writers

The longlist for the 2016 National Books Awards has been released, and it contains titles you very well may have seen in our bookstore here at Oxford Exchange: Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, Adam Hasslett's Imagine Me Gone, Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn (full list below). 

Winners and nominees of the previous few years include a balanced mix of contemporary heavy-hitters and literary greats like: Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, James McBride, Anthony Doerr, Junot Diaz, and Adam Johnson. 

All of this poses a seemingly simple enough, yet, total crapshoot of a question: what being produced today will, ultimately, be considered a great work of literature? 

Of course, the word great is debatable and somewhat subjective. Great could constitute a mere matter of longevity. It could also mean an accumulation of awards and notoriety. We consider works like Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye to be great, along with canonized titles of world literature like Homer's The Iliad and Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Some relate the word great to classic, and some believe classic to simply mean high-school curriculum (something all four of these titles also happen to be). 

Perhaps, great is the ability to conjure a transferable and ubiquitous emotion or facet of the human condition that will continue to reverberate for long after the creator's mortal time. 

Regardless, the numbers are clearly stacked against today's writers who hope to one day be considered amongst the top tier. In 2009, reports show that over 1,000,000 books were published, (an increase more than tripled from that of 2010; a majority of those titles being self-published) and that books entering the market have a less than one percent chance of being stocked in your average bookstore. 

When you consider the numbers, having a title even on the longlist of the National Book Awards is quite the amazing accomplishment. But, the question remains, who amongst us will be–forty, fifty years from now–considered in the same light that we today hold to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Salinger? What work of literature produced today will, in time, stand next to The Sun Also Rises and Fahrenheit 451?

Let me know what you think. In the mean time, here is The 2016 National Book Awards longlist for fiction. Stop by the bookstore and give these guys a read (if you haven't already), let me know who you consider to be a future writer-amongst-the-greats, and help us all in the act of supporting and preserving good literature.

  • Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan) 
  • Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group) 
  • Paulette Jiles, News of the World (William Morrow/HarperCollinsPublishers) 
  • Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking Books/Penguin Random House) 
  • Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen (Penguin Press/Penguin Random House)
  • Lydia Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (W. W. Norton & Company) 
  • Brad Watson, Miss Jane (W. W. Norton & Company) 
  • Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (Doubleday/Penguin Random House)
  • Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn (Amistad/HarperCollinsPublishers)


Blake Jon Mycal Smith

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