Brooks judges books for National Book Awards

Randi Baird

Geraldine Brooks does not judge a book by its cover.

The West Tisbury resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning author actually read, cover to cover, about 200 books this year as a judge for the National Book Awards (NBA).

In fact, Ms. Brooks and a cohort of four other judges each read that many new novels this year from the more than 400 fiction titles submitted for judging in the fiction category for the prestigious literary awards, which were announced on November 19.

The fiction winner was Phil Klay, author of “Redeployment,” a collection of short stories reflecting a variety of human experiences with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Klay is a graduate of Dartmouth College and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a public affairs officer.

“‘Redeployment’ was my favorite,” Ms. Brooks said last week in an interview with The Times. “A lot of the books were my favorites, that I had to let go of along the way. ‘Redeployment’ is a remarkable piece of writing and an important book. I think it will last in the same manner that ‘The Things They Carried’ reflected the Vietnam War experience.”

“Phil imagines himself in the heads of people whose [war] experience was different from his, goes way beyond anything he has experienced. I am very interested to see what Phil does next,” she said. “Redeployment” was picked from a short list of fiction works by authors Rabih Alameddine, Marilynne Robinson, Anthony Doerr, and Emily St. John Mandel.

Louise Gluck won the NBA poetry prize for her collection “Faithful and Virtuous Night.”

Evan Osnos, with “Age of Ambition,” won the nonfiction award, and Jacqueline Woodson won in the young people’s literature category for “Brown Girl Dreaming,” her memoir in verse.

The National Book Awards were founded in 1950 to promote the appreciation of American literature of the highest quality. The awards are underwritten by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to literary excellence.

Books are submitted for a $135 fee by publishers, including some self-publishing companies, and the qualifying books are sent by the publishers to the judges. The bulk of them arrive midyear, and the judges begin reading them to select a long list of 10 books, then a short list of five books from which the winner is chosen — a gargantuan task of reading, thought, and discussion.

“We divided the entries first through an alphabetic sort by authors’ names, and each judge took a group. You were free to read any other book as well. We wanted to make sure that every entry got a good look,” Ms. Brooks said. All the judges read all of the long- and short-list books.

“There was a wonderful sense of where we are as a literary nation, based on diversity and unifying themes. Many books contained a consoling and redeeming aspect of the power of art. Stories save us in tough times. Survival is insufficient. In one postapocalyptic novel, the survivors take up Shakespeare. In another, a woman translates books no one will ever read. That’s where she finds her solace. In another book, Lila is an itinerant young woman who finds relief in the Book of Job,” Ms. Brooks said.

Ms. Brooks said the selection process was most difficult in the early stages of culling the works. “It was really tough until we got to the long list,” Ms. Brooks said. “Differing literary tastes required more negotiation. When we got to the short list of these worthy books, we agreed to a remarkable degree.”

The NBA board provides guidelines to judges (authors must be U.S. citizens and be living at the time of submission), and the judging group develops its own criteria. “Our criteria said: We are looking for a striking original with masterful craft and beauty of language, free of excess, imaginatively rich and compellingly resolved … a book to reread.… It should be a novel that will stand the test of time, so that when we look back a decade from now … we’ll be proud we chose it,” Ms. Brooks reported.

Ms. Brooks had an idea of the size of her task. “Tony [husband and author Tony Horwitz] judged the nonfiction award several years ago, so I had seen the books piling up when he was a judge,” she said.

Another judge this year was Sheryl Coulter, a Northern California bookseller: “Sheryl said she spent so much time reading this summer that her elbows were being rubbed raw. She went to a skateboard store and got a pair of elbow pads,” Ms. Brooks said.

Basic math indicates that each judge read well over a million words as a NBA fiction judge, not including note-making and discussion about the books. Certainly a labor of love: “I love books,” Ms. Brooks said.