NEW YORK – A graphic novel, two narratives in free verse and three books about Sept. 11 -- two fiction and one nonfiction -- were among the National Book Awards finalists announced Wednesday, a list of experiments and breakthroughs with some notable omissions.
Big names were mostly shut out, including well-regarded novels by Cormac McCarthy, Claire Messud and Alice McDermott. Others bypassed were Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day," Richard Ford's "The Lay of the Land" and Charles Frazier's "Thirteen Moons," his first book since "Cold Mountain," winner of the National Book Award in 1997.
"The list is unconventional, unexpected; this is not what you'd expect from the National Book Awards," said Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the prizes. "I think the judges made really interesting choices. There are a lot of edgy narrative styles."
Among the better known books and authors to receive nominations: Taylor Branch's "On Canaan's Edge," the last of his acclaimed Civil Rights trilogy; Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower," a nonfiction best seller about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; and "Averno," by former U.S. poet laureate Louise Glueck.
Winners in four categories -- fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature -- will be announced Nov. 15 at a ceremony in New York, with author-humorist Fran Lebowitz serving as host. Poet Adrienne Rich and two founders of The New York Review of Books are to receive honorary awards.
Each of the competitive prizes is picked by a separate panel of writers that changes from year to year.
For a long time, any novels about Sept. 11 were hard to find, much less good ones. But two books set around the 2001 attacks, Ken Kalfus' "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" and Jess Walter's "The Zero," were finalists for best fiction. Also nominated was Mark Z. Danielewski's "Only Revolutions," a most unusual best seller that features an index, free verse and competing narratives that require the reader to periodically turn the book upside down.
Novelist Richard Powers, a former National Book Award finalist known for his unconventional narratives and fascination with science, was cited for "The Echo Maker." The fifth fiction nominee was Dana Spiotta's "Eat the Document," a novel about 1970s radicals and where they end up in the 1990s.
The young people's category also features a variety of styles and formats, including Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese," the first graphic novel to receive a National Book Award nomination; Patricia McCormick's "Sold," another story told in free verse; and M.T. Anderson's "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1," a tale of slavery featuring letters, newspaper clippings and quill pen etchings.
The other nominees were Martine Leavitt's "Keturah and Lord Death" and Nancy Werlin's "The Rules of Survival."
Besides books by Branch and Wright, nonfiction finalists included Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," Timothy Egan's "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" and Peter Hessler's "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between Chinas Past and Present."
Poetry nominees were Glueck's "Averno," H.L. Hix's "Chromatic," Ben Lerner's "Angle of Yaw," Nathaniel Mackey's "Splay Anthem" and James McMichael's "Capacity."
Judges chose, and presumably read, from 1,259 books submitted by publishers. Winners receive $10,000 and runners-up $1,000.
The National Book Foundation is a nonprofit organization that sponsors numerous readings and educational programs.