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Only 19 women have won the National Book Award for fiction—here’s who they are
In the 72-year history of the National Book Awards, there have been 79 winners in the fiction category—only 19 of which have been women. The awards, considered some of the most prestigious for literature in the country, have celebrated and platformed some of the greatest writers in U.S. history. But they have also served as a mirror, reflecting on the nation’s often exclusionary or reactionary politics.
The awards are judged by a new panel of 25 judges each year. Five judges are assigned to each of the five categories: fiction, nonfiction, young people’s literature, poetry, and translated literature. The judges, chosen from authors, critics, booksellers, and others in the book world, read through the hundreds of submissions in their category before selecting the longlist, which is made up of 10 books. From those, five finalists are chosen, and the winner is announced at the National Book Awards ceremony.
One year, in an effort to give the awards broader appeal, the National Book Awards were canceled and replaced with the American Book Awards, an Academy Awards-style event featuring a televised ceremony with a host and roughly 30 prizes, including Best Jacket Design. The 1980 event was a failure; dozens of past National Book Award winners signed a petition lambasting the new awards format for prioritizing profit over literary merit. A range of snafus at the ceremony itself ensured the event never occurred again.
This was not the awards’ last controversy. In 1988, a group of prominent Black writers and thinkers wrote an open letter, published in The New York Times Book Review, calling out the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize committees for their repeated snub of luminary author Toni Morrison and praising her contributions to American literature. Morrison had been a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction twice—once in 1975 for her novel “Sula,” and again, one year before the letter was published, for “Beloved.” Both times, her work lost out to now-obscure books, “Paco’s Story” and “The Hair of Harold Roux.” The letter was signed by notable figures including Maya Angelou, June Jordan, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., among others. To date, only two Black women have won in the fiction category.
Stacker looked at the 19 women who have won the National Book Award for fiction since its inception in 1950 and listed them in reverse chronological order, starting with the most recent winner. The list, which includes the prize winners and the winning books, was compiled using the historical National Book Foundation website.
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– Year book won award: 2019
– Book that won award: “Trust Exercise”
Born in South Bend, Indiana, to Korean and Jewish parents, Susan Choi began her career as a journalist, working as a fact-checker at The New Yorker. Choi’s fifth book, “Trust Exercise,” centers around a group of drama students at a performing arts high school. The novel plays with the blurry line between fiction, reality, and memory, exploring the ways in which narratives come to be constructed. Choi’s previous books have received accolades including the Asian American Literary Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her novel “American Woman” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. She currently teaches creative writing at Yale University.
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– Year book won award: 2018
– Book that won award: “The Friend”
Sigrid Nunez had published a long list of books over more than two decades before attaining overnight literary sensation status with her novel “The Friend.” The book tells the story of a writer grappling with grief in the wake of her friend’s suicide, as well as caring for the dog her friend left behind. Born and raised on New York’s Staten Island, Nunez attended Barnard College and received her Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Hunter College in New York.
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– Year books won awards: 2017 and 2011
– Books that won awards: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” and “Salvage the Bones”
In 2017, Jesmyn Ward became the first woman and first Black person to win the National Book Award for fiction twice. Both of Ward’s winning books center around the experiences of Southern Black families in Mississippi, where Ward herself was raised. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” follows a mother and her two children as they embark on a trip to pick up their father, who is getting out of prison. “Salvage the Bones” chronicles a family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, inspired by Ward and her family’s experiences surviving the catastrophe. Ward currently teaches creative writing at Tulane University in New Orleans.
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– Year book won award: 2012
– Book that won award: “The Round House”
Indigenous American author and poet Louise Erdrich won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her book “The Night Watchman.” The novel is based on her grandfather’s experience leading the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in resistance against the United States’ threat of termination in the ’50s. Termination would mean a nullification of treaties and a refusal to recognize the tribal nation’s sovereignty, which would strip it of the rights to own land.
Years earlier, Erdrich won the National Book Award for fiction for “The Round House,” which told the story of a 13-year-old Ojibwe boy who seeks revenge after his mother is violently assaulted on their North Dakota reservation. Erdrich wrote the novel while receiving treatment for breast cancer, a period which she described as both challenging and highly productive.
– Year book won award: 2010
– Book that won award: “Lord of Misrule”
Labeled a literary outlaw and a dark horse finalist by critics and media due to her small following and small press representation, Jaimy Gordon’s win for “Lord of Misrule” came as a surprise to many. Her publisher, New York-based press McPherson & Co., frantically printed more copies in response to the win. “Lord of Misrule” takes place at a racetrack in West Virginia and revolves around four horse races, with a cast of characters including con artists, loan sharks, and workers at the racetrack. Gordon taught writing at Western Michigan University and lives in Michigan.
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– Year book won award: 2004
– Book that won award: “The News from Paraguay”
Lily Tuck was born in Paris and lived in Peru and Uruguay as a child. Despite her travels, Tuck controversially admitted in her acceptance speech for “The News from Paraguay” that she had never been to Paraguay and did not intend to go—though she did end up visiting several months later. The historical fiction novel explores the affair between the dictatorial Marshal Francisco Solano López and Irish courtesan Ella Lynch.
It’s also worth noting that women dominated the fiction category of the National Book Awards in 2004, marking the first time in the history of the awards that all five finalists were women. The 2004 awards were unconventional in other ways too. In the nonfiction category, the final report of the 9/11 Commission was named a finalist.
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– Year book won award: 2003
– Book that won award: “The Great Fire”
Novelist and short story writer Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney and grew up moving between many parts of the world, including Australia, Wales, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. At 20, she and her family moved to New York City, where she worked for the United Nations for a decade. “The Great Fire” was Hazzard’s second novel, arriving more than 20 years after her first one, “The Transit of Venus.” The novel is set after the end of World War II and follows a British war veteran and writer as he travels through Japan, Hong Kong, and England, writing a book. Hazzard died in 2016 in New York City at 85.
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– Year book won award: 2002
– Book that won award: “Three Junes”
Julia Glass’ debut novel, “Three Junes,” is a triad of related stories that take place over the course of three Junes spanning from the late ’80s to the late ’90s. The stories chronicle the lives of a Scottish family spread out across the world, spanning Greece, New York City, and Scotland, as the relatives deal with grief and life. Glass published “Three Junes” at 46 and has since published six more novels. She lives in Massachusetts and teaches creative writing at Emerson College.
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– Year book won award: 2000
– Book that won award: “In America”
Writer, philosopher, and activist Susan Sontag is most famous for her essays and criticism, such as “Notes on Camp,” “On Photography,” and “Against Interpretation.” Sontag also wrote several novels, her last being “In America,” based on the true story of the Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who came to the U.S. and forged a successful stage career. The historical novel caused some controversy after Sontag was accused of plagiarizing certain passages from other books on Modjeska. She defended her use of the passages, arguing that the genre—a blend of fiction and biography—meant that some of the same sources would inevitably be shared among accounts of the actress. Sontag died in 2004 after a 30-year-long battle with cancer.
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– Year book won award: 1998
– Book that won award: “Charming Billy”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Alice McDermott has written nine books and is currently a professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Charming Billy” begins at the funeral of the eponymous Billy, an Irish American man who struggled with alcoholism for decades after learning of the death of the woman he loved. The book is set in the Irish enclaves of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, in New York, where McDermott herself was raised. Three of her novels have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
W. W. Norton
– Year book won award: 1996
– Book that won award: “Ship Fever and Other Stories”
Andrea Barrett’s work often blends historical fiction with writing about science and scientists, particularly women in the sciences. Barrett grew up dreaming of becoming a scientist herself and got her undergraduate degree in biology. But after discovering she did not possess a gift for actually doing science, she turned to writing as a way of thinking about the world through a scientific and natural history lens. “Ship Fever” is a collection of short stories that feature both fictionalized historical figures like Linnaeus and characters from Barrett’s imagination. Her new book, “Natural History,” to be released in September 2022, as well as her other books, further explore these themes and involve many recurring characters.
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– Year book won award: 1993
– Book that won award: “Shipping News”
Annie Proulx’s second novel, “The Shipping News,” won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, one of only three fiction books written by women—and six fiction books total—to receive both honors. The book tells the story of Quoyle, a reporter whose life falls apart after tragic events take place, prompting him to move back to his family’s home in Newfoundland, Canada, to start over. “The Shipping News” was adapted into a film in 2001 starring Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, and Julianne Moore. A recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2017 National Book Awards, other famous works by Proulx include the short story “Brokeback Mountain” and the novels “Postcards” and “Barkskins.”
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– Year book won award: 1984
– Book that won award: “Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories”
Ellen Gilchrist was born in Mississippi in 1935 and lived in various places across the South during her childhood. She married at 19 and got two undergraduate degrees, the second of which from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where she studied creative writing under famed writer and fellow National Book Award winner Eudora Welty. “Victory Over Japan” is a collection of short stories exploring the lives of Southern women and girls, often ones who have lost their money. Many of Gilchrist’s characters recur in her other books.
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– Year book won award: 1983
– Book that won award: “The Color Purple”
Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple” won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award, making her the first Black woman to win either honor. The novel, which begins in 1900, tells the story of Celie, a poor, young Black woman who seeks to escape mistreatment from several abusive relationships with men and finds intimacy, safety, and family with women. Two years later, “The Color Purple” was adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover. Walker is also known for her poetry and political and social activism, including her coining of the term “womanism,” which became a movement in the 1980s in response to the whiteness of the more mainstream feminist movement.
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– Year book won award: 1983
– Book that won award: “The Complete Stories of Eudora Welty”
“The Complete Stories of Eudora Welty” won the National Book Award for fiction the same year that Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” did; from 1980-1983, the National Book Award for fiction was presented to both a hardcover and a paperback winner. Welty’s book won the paperback award, while Walker’s won in the hardcover category. Welty was a prominent Southern writer, also famous for her photography. Early in her career, she worked for the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency, and traveled around the South during the Great Depression taking documentary photos. These pictures were said to be the basis of some of her stories and informed her strong sense of place and work in the South. Welty died at her Jackson, Mississippi, home in 2001.
University of South Carolina Press
Mary Lee Settle
– Year book won award: 1978
– Book that won award: “Blood Tie”
Mary Lee Settle founded the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction only two years after winning the National Book Award for her novel “Blood Tie,” in part due to complaints that the National Book Awards relied too heavily on commercial interests by employing publishers, rather than authors, as judges. “Blood Tie” follows the exploits of international guests at a hotel on the Turkish coast. Settle cycled through several careers in addition to writing: a model and actress, a volunteer for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II, a teacher at Bard College, and an editor at several magazines.
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– Year book won award: 1972
– Book that won award: “The Complete Stories”
Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor was posthumously awarded the National Book Award in 1972 for a comprehensive collection of her short stories, having died in 1964 at 39. Her early death was from complications from the autoimmune disease lupus, the same disease from which her father died. O’Connor’s fiction is known for its dry, dark humor, violence, and strong sense of morality, heavily influenced by her Catholic beliefs. O’Connor harbors a complicated legacy; scholars and critics have noted her several documented racist remarks and correspondences and have argued that these beliefs cannot be seen as separate from her writing.
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Joyce Carol Oates
– Year book won award: 1970
– Book that won award: “Them”
Joyce Carol Oates has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize five times and is a prolific writer, having published more than 50 novels, as well as several collections of short stories and nonfiction. “Them” chronicles the story of a working-class, unlucky family as they strive for better circumstances over the course of several decades. Many of the themes in “Them,” including class struggle and the ways in which women find their power in the world, frequently crop up in Oates’ other works, including her famous short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Currently, Oates teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley.
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Katherine Anne Porter
– Year book won award: 1966
– Book that won award: “The Complete Stories of Katherine Anne Porter”
Katherine Anne Porter wrote across genres ranging from fiction to journalism and was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in literature, though she never won. Porter was also the first woman to win the National Book Award for fiction for “The Complete Stories of Katherine Anne Porter,” which also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Porter was born in Texas and, after losing her mother at 2, was raised primarily by her paternal grandmother. Her works explore the nature of good and evil and offer a somewhat cynical view of humankind. Porter wrote only one novel and 27 stories over the course of her career.
This article originally appeared on Stacker and was syndicated with permission.