McBride, Fiction Award “Underdog”?

The Good Lord BirdThe New York Times declares James McBride the “surprise winner” of the National Book Award in fiction, announced last night. NPR calls him “the clear underdog.”

Both designations reveal more about the competition than they do about McBride, who has already published a major best seller, 1996’s The Color of Water, (which was on the NYT best seller list for over 2 years). His first novel,  Miracle at St. Anna, was made into a movie by Spike Lee and The Good Lord Bird (Penguin/Riverhead; Dreamscape Audio; Thorndike), his third novel and NBA winner, has already appeared on a number of the year’s best books lists.

As the NYT also notes, “While the National Book Awards tend to be criticized for their selections of little-known or obscure books, few were complaining about the finalists this year. Rachel Kushner, Jhumpa Lahiri and George Saunders, nominees in fiction, were critical darlings.”

There was at least one complaint. Eric Obenauf in the Los Angeles Review of Books, expressed disappointment that the fiction long list, introduced this year, didn’t expand opportunities for lesser knowns, but was “dominated by already brand writers.” He calls 2010, the year that true underdogs, Paul Harding’s debut novel Tinkers, (from “teeny ” Bellevue Literary Press) won the Pulitzer Prize and The Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (from the even smaller McPherson & Company), won the National Book Award for Fiction, “a watershed moment in contemporary publishing.”

If you’re surprised to hear McBride called an “underdog,” remember the term is relative.

DISPLAY NOTE: This is a good time to pull previous winners and put them on display — the National Book Awards site lists past winners, with links to comments that put them into a contemporary context.

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