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The National Book Awards

Literary Prizes Recognizing Excellence in American Literature


John Lithgow, author and host of the 2011 National Book Awards

John Lithgow, host of the 2011 National Book Awards

Frazer Harrison / Getty Images Entertainment
The National Book Awards are annual literary prizes “from writers to writers,” presented each year by the non-profit National Book Foundation. The National Book Awards recognize literary excellence in American authors who are published by American publishing houses.

About the the National Book Award
The National Book Awards are given in the categories of:
Young People’s Literature

Each year, the National Book Foundation also presents two lifetime achievement awards:

Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters -- which is awarded to a person who has enriched American literary heritage over a life of service, or a body of work. Winners of the award include historian David McCullough; book club and reading promoter extraordinaire, Oprah Winfrey; and beloved novelist Judy Blume.

Literarian Award -- which is “presented to an individual for outstanding service to the American literary community, whose life and work exemplify the goals of the National Book Foundation to expand the audience for literature and to enhance the cultural value of literature in America." Winners include Joan Ganz Cooney, founder of the Children’s Television Workshop (creator of Sesame Street) and Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, co-editors of The New York Review of Books.

National Book Award Eligibility and Judging
Only American citizens published by American publishers are eligible for the National Book Awards. Only publishers can nominate books for the awards; authors cannot nominate their own books and self-published books are ineligible for the awards.

Each category of books is judged by an independent panel of five judges who have written and published in that category. The judges change every year and make their decisions without input from the National Foundation Board.

History of the the National Book Awards
The first National Book Award ceremony was held March 16, 1950, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, honoring writers in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. At that time, the awards were sponsored by The American Book Publisher’s Council, The Book Manufacturers’ Institute, and The American Booksellers’ Association.

In the first ten years of The National Book Awards, prizes were bestowed on such established and emerging writers as and poets W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams; novelists Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, and William Faulkner; and non-fiction writers such as Rachel Carlson.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the National Book Awards underwent some changes, greatly expanding the number of book categories to sixteen and bestowing a total of twenty-eight awards on winners chosen by a committee of publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, authors, and critics.

In 1987, the National Book Awards were re-focused with a renewed emphasis on being literary prizes given “by writers to writers.” In 1996, the National Book Foundation established the practice of using independent panels established writers to judge their respective categories.

In recent years, winners have included Colum McCann (Fiction: Let the Great World Spin); Annette Gordon-Reed (Non-Fiction, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family); Terrance Hayes (Poetry, Lighthead); Sherman Alexie (Young People’s Literature, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

The National Book Awards Finalist and Winner Announcements
Twenty National Book Awards finalists — five in each category — are announced each October. The announcement of the finalists has typically been made by a writer or writers of some importance to American book publishing, or who are past National Book Award winners.

In addition, the finalists are announced in a location of literary significance. For example, in 2006, the National Book Award finalists’ announcement was made by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco; in 2005, John Grisham announced the finalists fro in William Faulkner’s front yard in Oxford, Mississippi.

Each finalist receives a prize of $1,000, a medal, and a citation from the panel jury for his or her respective category. During National Book Awards Week, before the night of the National Book Award ceremony, the finalists take part in a reading that’s open to the public.

The names of the winners of the National Book Awards are a closely guarded secret until they are announced at a gala awards ceremony held each November in New York City. Hosts of the National Book Awards ceremony include Calvin Trillin and John Lithgow. Winners receive $10,000 and a bronze sculpture.

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