This week's literary events are the biggest award shows of 2020

So long, Oscar. Hello, Booker.

A book.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

As the pandemic has cleared the calendar this year for new movies, TV, and Broadway shows, book publishing has encountered a problem of a different sort: oversaturation. Books that had been delayed to the fall in knee-jerk reactions to spring shutdowns are now jostling against the season's big releases. The bottleneck has even extended to the industry's awards: The U.K.-based Booker Prize hopped from Tuesday, when it would have preceded Wednesday's National Book Awards, to Thursday, so it could avoid competing with the release of former President Barack Obama's memoir.

But while some have fretted that holding the awards on back-to-back days might create "a logjam of coverage that could dilute the impact of the prizes," this week readers ought to relish the relative normalcy offered by literary awards in the tumult of the pandemic.

Usually — in years without raging pestilence — award shows serve as a satisfying culmination of the past 12 months. Fans can take stock of what they've loved or what they've missed, debating the merits of underdogs and overrated nominees. In 2020, though, awards shows are the opposite of fun; they're glaring reminders of this year's abnormality. Though the Oscars, for example, are still planning to hold a ceremony for 2020, none of the nominees will be major blockbusters, since cineplexes shut down before the summer movie season could kick into gear. The Tony Awards, meanwhile, will be even weirder: Just 18 shows are even eligible, leaving one major category, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, with a single nominee.

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The publishing industry is nearly alone in being almost entirely undisrupted. While author tours were obviously out, "book sales haven't cratered," The New York Times reports. And aside from that early shuffling, books are still coming out as planned. Hey, if Obama's memoir — potentially the biggest book of the decade — is still trusted to roll out just fine, so can everything else.

The National Book Awards, which honors the top American books of the year and kicks off this year's literary award season, isn't entirely pandemic-proof. Known as "book prom" among insiders, the NBA ceremony will be all virtual this year, rather than gather nominees in New York City for the usual glitzy gala. But that's blessedly about where the oddities end. Take the fiction category, with finalists Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam; A Children's Bible, by Lydia Millet; The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw; Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart; and Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu. While you might quibble with who made the cut (I was sorry to see Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half left off and Raven Leilani's Luster relegated to the 5 Under 35 category), there's no obvious absence on the list due to a pandemic-related postponement.

While proceedings at the National Book Awards should be normal, there is potentially a chance that this year's circumstances will affect the resonance of the eventual winner. Two finalists, Leave the World Behind and A Children's Bible, are noted as standing out for being vaguely prophetic for their apocalyptic plots, despite having been written pre-pandemic. But that doesn't change the normalcy of the awards themselves, and the comfort in watching at least something go on as planned. Even if, say, Alam's novel wins, as some expect it to, it would in no way be a victory cheapened by a lack of real competition.

The slightly more prestigious Booker Prize will come right on the heels of the National Book Awards on Thursday, and it's in a similar situation. While the ceremony is a little later than typical this year, having apparently been moved at some point from a planned October ceremony date, it will also feature virtual guests, including Obama; Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall; and authors Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, and Bernardine Evaristo. (The prize honors the best English-language novel published in the U.K., though previously it was limited to books written by Commonwealth citizens; there has been criticism of the prize since it started including Americans.)

While Stuart's Shuggie Bain is on the National Book Awards' fiction shortlist as well, it seems a likelier win for the Booker, being, as it is, a distinctly Scottish novel about a queer boy growing up in public housing during the Margaret Thatcher era. The New York Times calls it the "favorite" to win, and bookies agree. Glasgow-born New Yorker Stuart has been described as the "breakout" debut author of the year, too, having written "the best-reviewed book you've not yet read." In addition to the glowing reviews, appealing to the Booker's more euro-centric roots (potentially in light of recent criticism of the award) might put him over the edge against fellow longlisters Diane Cook with The New Wilderness; Avni Doshi with Burnt Sugar; Brandon Taylor with Real Life; Tsitsi Dangarembga with This Mournable Body; and Maaza Mengiste with The Shadow King.

And if it doesn't win? Upsets are a nice distraction too. What's surer, though, is that the outcome of the Booker Prize would be no different if the world was normal — making enjoying them like briefly hopping into a parallel universe where COVID-19 never happened, and we're all living our lives like West Side Story is still coming out next month.

Maybe book awards aren't usually your thing. But let this be a letter of recommendation: In 2020, you ought to take all the normal you can get.

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