2020 National Book Awards Longlist for Fiction

September 2020



The ten contenders for the National Book Award for Fiction

The National Book Foundation today announced the Longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The Finalists in all five categories will be revealed on October 6.

The 2020 Fiction Longlist counts three debuts among the ten titles. Only one writer, Lydia Millet, has been honored by the National Book Awards before; Millet’s novel Sweet Lamb of Heaven was Longlisted for Fiction in 2016. This year’s Longlist includes two writers who have been previously honored by the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 prize, Brit Bennett and Charles Yu. The authors on the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction Longlist have earned recognition from numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. In addition, their writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Elle, New York Magazine, The Paris Review, New York Review of Books, GQThe AtlanticMcSweeney’s, and more.

Three titles on this year’s Longlist are set in the American South. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is a multi-generational family saga in which the characters contemplate the consequences of their lineage. Twins Stella and Desiree escaped rural Louisiana as teenagers, but years later Desiree returns with her daughter in this work of crisp social commentary that addresses colorism, gender identity, and more. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw draws us into the multifaceted lives of Black women across several generations as they engage in self-discovery and seduction. In Philyaw’s first work of fiction, her characters push the boundaries of thought around morality, Christianity, and their community’s expectations. Returning to the fictional territory of Tims Creek, North Carolina in which two of his previous works also take place, the short story collection If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan explores appetites of all kinds, as well as characters yearning for both metaphorical and literal flight.

Two Longlisted titles mine the complexity and poignancy of apocalyptic events. In Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, Brooklyn couple Amanda and Clay head out on a family vacation to Long Island, but their trip turns uneasy when the homeowners seek refuge following blackouts in New York City. As the world outside moves towards greater unrest, the group faces their perceptions about each other and the very concept of safety. Civilization’s future is at stake in A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, who holds a master’s degree in environmental policy. The cast of young characters in Millet’s novel easily fend for themselves as their parents remain indifferent to the devastation of the world around them in allegorical tale that defies rationalizations about climate change.

Two debut novels set overseas consider the impact of a lack of support, whether from society or family, in very different settings and time periods. In Megha Majumdar’s debut A Burning, a Facebook post results in protagonist Jivan being accused of collaborating with a terrorist on social media. With this act at its center, Majumdar lambasts the promise of social mobility through technology in India, capturing the despair felt by all of those betrayed by the promise of digital democracy and failed by their nation’s justice systems. Set in Glasgow in the 1980s, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is an epic portrayal of a working-class family haunted by alcoholism. Each of their experiences are portrayed with great care through the eyes of lonely Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, who finds himself at the margins of his own family.

Two novels interrogate interpersonal relationships and self-concept. The reveal of a family secret propels The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka. Originally seeking an inheritance, sisters Livy and Cheyenne join forces with their adopted younger brother Essex to find their other mother, Ann, who agreed to let Kirsten raise both daughters, provided Kirsten not reveal the details of who belonged to which mother. Their quest takes them across the country as each character works to define their own freedom. In The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha, statistics whiz Sam Waxworth arrives in New York City to write a monthly column for a venerable magazine and soon finds himself entangled in a crumbling family empire. Beha’s novel meticulously explores the relationship between the old guard and new meritocracy as Waxworth unpacks his complicated relationship to his analytics career.

Everyone embodies a role in Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu and protagonist Willis Wu strives to land the best one available to an Asian-American man: Kung Fu Guy. Yu’s novel takes the concept of allegory and uses the familiar landscape of Hollywood tropes to create a nuanced, heartfelt, and stylistically unique portrait of Asian-American identity.

Publishers submitted a total of 388 books for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The judges for Fiction are Roxane Gay (Chair), Cristina Henríquez, Laird Hunt, Rebecca Makkai, and Keaton Patterson. 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 virtual National Book Awards Ceremony on November 18.

2020 Longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction:

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