The ten contenders for the National Book Award for Fiction
The National Book Foundation announced the Longlist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction. The Finalists in all five categories will be revealed on October 5.
The 2021 Fiction Longlist includes writers at all stages of their careers and features three debut novels among the ten titles. Four authors have been previously honored by the National Book Award for Fiction. Richard Powers was Longlisted in 2014, a Finalist in 1993, and the Winner of the National Book Award in 2006. Lauren Groff is a two-time National Book Award Finalist, in 2015 and in 2018. Elizabeth McCracken has also been honored twice: Longlisted in 2014 and a Finalist in 1996. Anthony Doerr was a National Book Award Finalist in 2014. One author, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, was Longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry in 2020 with her collection The Age of Phillis.
The authors on the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction Longlist have earned recognition from numerous national and international prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, The Story Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the PEN/O. Henry Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, the Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine, and The Bridge/Il Ponte Book Award. Among these ten writers are MacArthur, Guggenheim, Lannan, and Santa Maddalena fellows. In addition, their writing has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Guardian, Essence, The Paris Review, and more.
Jason Mott, inspired by his own dislocating book tour, fictionalizes the experience in Hell of a Book. A surrealist author’s tour converges with the story of a Black child growing up in the rural South—and a possibly imaginary counterpart—for a novel that grapples with racism, reality, and what it is like to be Black in America.
Several of the Longlisted novels delve into displacement and the concept of home. Jakob Guanzon’s debut novel Abundance follows a father and son for a pivotal 24 hours after they’re evicted from their trailer on New Years’ Eve. Each chapter announces the amount of cash the father has in his pocket—beginning at McDonald’s and finishing at Walmart—and exposes the deep inequities faced by Americans today. In Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Matrix, Marie is deemed unfit for marriage, banished from France, and becomes the prioress of a poverty-stricken abbey in England. At first homesick and reluctant to carry out her role, Marie pushes the boundaries of what is proper for a woman of her time and dedicates herself to protecting her new home, her fellow nuns, and her own status. After the death of her father and her mother’s sudden return to Singapore, the unnamed interpreter of Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies leaves New York and comes to the International Court of the United Nations in The Hague, Netherlands. A woman pulled between languages and identities, the narrator confronts the moral complexities of interpretation and looks for a place to finally call home.
The titular character of Zorrie by Laird Hunt spends all but a few months of her life in rural Indiana. Zorrie’s life and home is shaped by the events of the 20th century, from her Depression-era childhood to the fallout of World War II. An ode to the rural Midwest, this tightly woven novel captures dreams, losses, and resilience. Ailey, the protagonist of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s debut novel, The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, traces her family history across two centuries from the small Georgia town where her ancestors were enslaved. A sweeping epic, Ailey challenges her foremothers’ expectations and comes to terms with her own mixed identity.
Robert Jones Jr.’s debut novel, The Prophets, is the Black queer love story of two enslaved men on a Deep South plantation who find tenderness in the face of oppression. Across his cast of characters, Jones writes with rich emotional interiority and offers an alternative history of freedom and joy. The lives of families—chosen and biological—are challenged, strengthened, and reshaped in The Souvenir Museum, Elizabeth McCracken’s collection of interwoven short stories. Each story centers ordinary moments between couples, parents, and siblings that shed light on love, loneliness, and everyday experiences.
Two Longlisted titles contemplate human-led destruction and call for stewardship—for our planet and others. Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is set in fifteenth-century Constantinople, a small town in modern-day USA, and an interstellar ship in the future. In this far-reaching epic that spans nearly six centuries, young people coming of age in troubled societies are transported and instructed by the same long-lost book. In Bewilderment by Richard Powers, a widowed astrobiologist sets his sight on an experimental treatment to keep his neurodivergent son off psychoactive drugs as they both mourn the loss of Aly, wife, mother, and animal rights activist. In an intimate reflection of life after death, Powers explores the bond between a father and son, Earth’s environmental vulnerability, and the planets beyond our own.
Publishers submitted a total of 415 books for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction. The judges for Fiction are Luis Alberto Urrea (Chair), Alan Michael Parker, Emily Pullen, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, and Charles Yu. Judge’s decisions are made independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors and deliberations are strictly confidential. Winners in all categories will be announced live at the National Book Awards Ceremony on November 17.
2021 Longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction:
Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land
Scribner / Simon & Schuster
Lauren Groff, Matrix
Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House
Jakob Guanzon, Abundance
Laird Hunt, Zorrie
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois
Harper / HarperCollins Publishers
Robert Jones, Jr., The Prophets
G. P. Putnam’s Sons / Penguin Random House
Katie Kitamura, Intimacies
Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House
Elizabeth McCracken, The Souvenir Museum: Stories
Ecco / HarperCollins Publishers
Jason Mott, Hell of a Book
Dutton / Penguin Random House
Richard Powers, Bewilderment
W. W. Norton & Company