The US National Book Awards’ Lisa Lucas: ‘The Times We Live In’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Looking ahead to Wednesday’s 70th annual National Book Awards, the foundation’s executive director Lisa Lucas talks about the program’s unique way of charting a culture’s decades. ‘We believe in it.’

Lisa Lucas. Image: National Book Foundation

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Making Sure That We Are Unshakable’
When the 70th annual National Book Award winners are named and honored Wednesday evening (November 20) in New York City, National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas may be watching with special pride as the Translated Literature award is announced.

“Everything is an experiment, you know,” she says in an interview with Publishing Perspectives from her office. “We obviously believed in translated literature and we believed in it enough to establish a prize after so long [more than 20 years] without adding new ones. But the reception was just really exciting.”

As our readers will remember, this fifth category was added only last year, a move cheered by the world publishing industry, which had appreciated the Booker International Prize for honoring both authors and translators. The National Book Award in Translated Literature is devised as is the Booker International, to split its monetary award (US$10,000) between the winning translator and author.

And the new award is off to an auspicious start. Last year’s inaugural winner of the prize was Yoko Tawada for The Emissarytranslated by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions Publishing, 2018), a book named on Library Journal’s Best Books of 2018 list. And the category’s finalists last year included Flights (Riverhead, 2018) translated by Jennifer Croft, while this year’s longlist featured Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Riverhead, 2019) translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Both are by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

In announcing the creation of the award last year, Lucas spoke with the serious intent—and social relevance—that characterizes the National Book Foundation’s programming. “We are a nation of immigrants,” she said, “and we should never stop seeking connection and insight from the myriad cultures that consistently influence and inspire us.”

With that line, she’d captured with typical eloquence the unease felt by many publishing professionals in the country and the world, as nationalism, xenophobia, and repression have emerged from the shadows during the Trump administration, the Brexit negotiations, the escalating Hong Kong riots and more. As Coffee House Press’ Mandy Medley told Chad Post for an article at Publishers Weekly, “Since the 2016 election, American readers have started looking beyond the traditional—white—American canon to international literature, not just for new perspectives and ideas but for great storytelling.”

Translated Literature: ‘Doing the Work’

The 2019 National Book Award finalists in translated literature

Now assured of the success of that “experiment” in creating the Translated Literature award, Lucas says, “Everyone who publishes translation really came through last year. We got what we expected” in terms of submission levels, “given what the market is.” And this year, a cohort of 145 titles were submitted in the category. For comparison, 325 were submitted in the Young People’s Literature category; 600 in nonfiction; 397 in fiction; and 245 in poetry.

The Translated Literature award “over time will encourage publishers to think about the role they can play in bringing work from around the world to American audiences.”Lisa Lucas, National Book Foundation

The introduction of the Translated Literature award, in fact, was driven, she says, in part by the realization that the foundation could offer international work a spotlight unparalleled in US literary life. “This was designed,” she says, “to say, ‘This is something that has the opportunity to get  one of the biggest platforms in literature. And I think that over time, that will encourage publishers to think about the role they can play in bringing work from around the world to American audiences. There’s an appetite and interest,” she says, “whether it’s critically, whether it’s at a bookstore, or whether it’s on the prize circuit. This is something people are asking for.”

When the 2019 Booker International Prize went to the Omani author Jokha Alharthi for Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press, 2018) in its translation by Marilyn Booth, the Booker reported a 30-fold increase in sales in the week after the prize’s announcement.

Understandably, Lucas wants to hold off on trying to assess what sales impact might be felt from such a new award in the States, but any caution in making such estimates shouldn’t be confused with a lack of commitment, she says. “I think that the work is really going to be not just in producing the prize. We’ll keep doing it. We believe in it. It’s valuable to us. And we’ll make all the noise we possibly can from our little nine-person office.”

It’s the noise that counts. The ultimate success of the Translated Literature category, she points out, has to do with an alignment with the work of translation specialists such as Ottaway winner Post of Open Letter Books and Three Percent, and organizations such as Words Without Borders and the American Literary Translators Association.

“All of these people are doing the work,” she says, “and so we’re joining hands with them, making sure that we’re talking to media, that we’re talking to every bookseller, to be sure there’s a road to visibility” for strong work in translation.

Longlists and the Long View

The 2019 National Book Award finalists in fiction

In talking with Lucas about the National Book Awards program as a whole, you realize that the seven decades of the foundation’s work now is becoming instructive for the simple fact of longevity, perseverance—sticking it out.

A National Book Award-winning title “may not sell a billion copies, but it’s definitely going to be a book that’s read, that’s noticed, and that has an opportunity to shine.”Lisa Lucas, National Book Foundation

There are what she calls “thunderclap books,” the blockbusters that capture the market’s fancy. But those, of course, aren’t the norm. And what impresses her now, she says, is a certain give and take between marketplace relevance and literary excellence, a dynamic that can give the National Book Awards their own, growing power.

“I think a prize gets stronger,” she says. “Now, I don’t think that we’re in the business of making sure that we’re only identifying cultural juggernauts. But when you look at the long arc of any prize, you do see, that Tinkers moment for the Pulitzer, right?”

Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009), when given the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, caught many off-guard. It was a relatively little-known work from a small independent house, and the book had been buoyed to national attention by adamant support from independent booksellers and readers.

“Everybody was, like, ‘What is that curious book?'” Lucas says, “And then they loved it and it just took off. A little indie press having a crazy moment then became part of the story of the Pulitzer. Part of building up the power of a prize is the fact that a quiet book can have so much impact. And because we’re 70 years old, even if something is a quiet book, whatever wins the National Book Award is not going to land softly now.

“It may not sell a billion copies, but it’s definitely going to be a book that’s read, that’s noticed, and that has an opportunity to shine.”

Nonfiction: ‘Not Just a Father’s Day Book’

The 2019 National Book Award finalists in nonfiction

Lucas is also watching the current market strength of nonfiction with interest. Having co-chaired the nonfiction planning committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival for four years prior to her move in 2016 to the National Book Foundation, she says she’s not surprised at how, once someone tries a good biography, for example, “People sort of catch on that it’s not just a Father’s Day book.

“And I think people are so curious now about what’s happening in the world. I think this is the first time in my life that I’ve shared with so many people that desire to understand how we got here” in society today. “It doesn’t matter which side of the divide you’re on right now. What’s going on underneath the surface of social interactions, on the social justice front, the political landscape, the climate, you name it.

“We want to understand what’s happening today. And people aren’t only looking to get into instructional titles or tell-alls coming out of the West Wing. People are also comprehensively looking to hear other people’s thoughts and feelings around the moment that we live in now.

“I think they’re also increasingly interested in past. We have to look backward to understand the present and imagine the future.”

Literature: Responsibility and Awareness

The 2019 National Book Award finalists in poetry

Anyone who has watched the National Book Awards program over the years is aware of the seriousness of its intent.

Reflected in everything Lucas says in a conversation with her is a sense of purpose—of raising the visibility of good work through that accrued power of the award she’s talking about. And, needless to say, there will always be some who read into various jury panels’ selections one agenda or another. In fact, what Lucas describes is one single agenda: the responsibility to authentically important work, reflective of the culture and its era.

The National Book Awards “say something about the times we live in. And I think that that’s one of the most beautiful things about being an institution with seven decades of history.”Lisa Lucas, National Book Foundation

It becomes evident that she’s given this a lot of thought and is clear on both the place and the potential of the program, after 70 years. The awards stand in the American experience—and most recently the international arena—capturing the reading and publishing moment.

“There’s no way to divorce the world we live in now from the books that are being published,” Lucas says. “And I don’t think that we do a very specific job of saying, ‘We want to have socially aware books.’ That’s not part of our mission. That’s not something we instruct the jurors on.

“But these people on our juries are thinkers and writers and readers and booksellers and citizens of the world. And I think that every decade, if you look at the books” that were part of a program of this kind, “it tells you something about the time in which those books were being read.

“This is a moment, when you look at this decade, if you look at 2010 through now, it’s a moment that’s going to say something about the times we live in. And I think that that’s one of the most beautiful things about being an institution with seven decades of history.

“Not only can you measure a year,” Lucas says, “but you can measure a decade. You can measure it all. This is important, what we’re doing. It’s all about people. It’s about the world that we live in—and how we did.”

She says she’d love to see the foundation find the funding and resources, perhaps by its 75th anniversary, to create a timeline to plot the awards’ history against the times in which each year’s and each decade’s literature was being read and awarded. When she thinks about her own four years with the foundation so far, she knows what she wants for the awards.

“Whenever the time comes for me to go,” Lisa Lucas says about the National Book Awards program, “the thing I want most to leave behind is as much of a shot as possible at lasting as long as it can. Anchoring it. Making sure that we are unshakable.”

The 2019 National Book Award finalists in young people’s literature

More from Publishing Perspectives on the National Book Awards is here, and on awards programs in general is hereMore of our extensive coverage of translation is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.