Is there a method to the madness of the National Book Awards, the Oscars of book publishing? This year there's a clear fiction front-runner (hint: His name is Denis Johnson), but the winners often seem to come not only out of left field, but right field and center field, too. One year Cold Mountain beats Don DeLillo’s Underworld, the next year Alice McDermott trumps Robert Stone. And in some years the choices (made not out of one giant consensus, like the Oscars, but via five rotating committee members) are bafflingly obscure. (Who was Larry Heineman, and was his book really better than Beloved?) But some patterns persist — and we've boiled them down into five rules for winning a fiction award! (This year's top author will be announced at Wednesday evening's gala.)
Don't Be a Young Debut Novelist
Up until the mid-eighties, there was a separate niche for first novels. Since then, on the few occasions when debuts have won — Ha Jin for Waiting in 1999, Julia Glass for Three Junes, in a 2002 upset — they've either already been published or are well into their middle years, with other careers or colorful histories behind them. That means that the chances this year for Joshua Ferris (And Then We Came to the End) and Mischa Berlinski (Fieldwork) aren't very good.
Do Aim for World-Historical Significance
It seems to have helped obscure or difficult books in recent years, like Lily Tuck's aptly titled The News From Paraguay, in 2004, or William Vollmann's Europe Central a year later. That means Berlinski's complicated book about Thailand has a slightly better shot than Ferris's hip Brooklynite first-person-plural tale of office-life drudgery. Still, obscure picks usually do best in an obscure field, and that's not the case this year.
Don't Write Short Stories
The last winner was Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever and Other Stories, in 1996; before that, you'd have to go back to 1984. That's roughly one a decade — maybe we're due for one? Even so, this means the short-story collections — The Varieties of Disturbance, by Lydia Davis, and Like You'd Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard — are a long shot. Plus, Davis's formally experimental stories (some of them just a couple of words long) make a win for her even less likely.
Do Be a Literary Insider
Davis and Shepard do have one thing in their favor: They're two different brands of literary insiders. Davis, also a translator and once married to Paul Auster, is a known quantity in the lit universe. Shepard's a college professor with a poppy but edgy voice, a cult following among writers (probably including one or two of the judges), and a load of very solid work behind him — but likely not enough cachet to win over everyone on the committee.
Do Expand Your Demo
Denis Johnson already has the literary-insider and world-historical-significance angles covered: He’s a sometime poet and a big name writer, and his sprawling Vietnam novel is a sweeping indictment of American military ambitions with obvious topical parallels. And he's got the inside track on another requirement: widening your audience. He already had the poetry fans; with Jesus' Son, he won over the younger lit hipsters, and now Tree of Smoke hits the baby-boomers and history buffs where they live. So his appeal probably runs straight through all five members of the committee — like that of past winners Cormac McCarthy and William Styron. He's not as easily crowned as front-runners past, but then, the competition isn't what it used to be. (In 1980, Styron’s co-nominees were Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Scott Spencer.) Chances are, you'll see Johnson's wife at the podium Wednesday. Johnson himself is in Iraq writing. That's a story in itself — and one the judges will probably like. —Boris Kachka