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Here Is the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction Long List

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Publishers

Book award season hath begun. The Booker Prize shortlist was announced on Tuesday and the National Book Foundation has been releasing long lists of the works being considered for its annual prizes all week. Today, it’s time for the fiction contenders. This year, 388 books were read and judged by a panel chaired by Roxane Gay. Additional judges included Cristina Henríquez, Laird Hunt, Rebecca Makkai, and Keaton Patterson. The longest is, as always, an impressive showing. The finalists are Rumaan Alam, Christopher Beha, Brit Bennett, Randall Kenan, Megha Majumdar, Lydia Millet, Deesha Philyaw, Douglas Stuart, Vanessa Veselka, and Charles Yu.
Three of this year’s nominees are debut novels and seven of the authors are being recognized by the NBF for the very first time. Millet was long listed in 2016, while both Bennett and Yu are previous recipients of the 5 under 35 prize.

Alam’s Leave the World Behind, a thriller, tells the story of a white family staying in a swank Airbnb in the Hamptons whose trip goes awry after a knock on the door. It’s a Black couple who own the place. Netflix reportedly already bought the rights in a bidding war, with Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts set to headline. Millett tackles a different apocalyptic plot with A Children’s Bible, chronicling the stark divide between children who care and parents who absolutely do not as the world warms and crumbles around them.

Bennet’s sophomore novel, The Vanishing Half, interrogates whiteness through a set of Black twins, one of whom spends her life passing as a white woman. The story is set in a fictional Jim Crow-era town where Black residents procreate with the goal of having children with lighter skin than their own. (HBO is turning it into a limited series.) Yu, who also was previously awarded the 5 under 35 prize from the NBF, plays with satire and stereotypes with his Interior Chinatown, the story of an Asian-American actor struggling in Hollywood.

In Shuggie Bain, Stuart offers a tale of a working-class childhood in the 1980s, one shadowed by addiction and violence. (Stuart’s novel was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize this week.) The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Beha) follows a data analyst who takes a job at a glossy New York magazine and gets a front-row seat to a crumbling New York City family empire. While The Great Offshore Grounds (Veselka) sees siblings grappling with the reveal of the secrets of their parentage as they pursue an inheritance, and then an understanding of who they truly are. In A Burning, Majumdar spins a story from a Facebook protest post that poses questions about who technology is really helping, both in India, where the story is set, and beyond.

Rounding out the list are Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies and Kenan’s If I Had Two Wings, both — along with Bennett’s work — set in the American South. The latter is a collection of short stories about longing for flight of all kinds. It’s set in the same fictional North Carolina region as Kenan’s last two works. (Kenan died at age 57 earlier this week.) The former, also a collection of stories and the author’s first work of fiction, follows the lives of multi-generational Black women, tackling overarching themes like religion and what it means to act on desire.

Here’s the list in its entirety:

  • Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind Ecco / HarperCollins Publishers
  • Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts Tin House Books
  • Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House
  • Randall Kenan, If I Had Two Wings W. W. Norton & Company
  • Megha Majumdar, A Burning Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House
  • Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible W. W. Norton & Company
  • Deesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies West Virginia University Press
  • Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain Grove Press / Grove Atlantic
  • Vanessa Veselka, The Great Offshore Grounds Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House
  • Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown Pantheon Books / Penguin Random House

Finalists will be announced on October 6.

Here Is the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction Long List