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100 Must-Read Almost-Prize-Winning Books

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Tracy Shapley Towley

Staff Writer

Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all-around ne’er do well, very-adult graduate of the University of Iowa, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, reading fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and typing letters to her friends on an old red typewriter that doesn't have a working period so all sentences must end in questions marks or exclamation points? She has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has a lot of thoughts on them. Her old Iowa farmhouse is shared by her husband Sean, a pair of cats, a pair of dogs, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.

I had this problem a few years ago where I accidentally read and loved a few Pulitzer Prize-winning novels (Empire Falls and Middlesex) and then, because I’m a little bit stupid, I decided that if two of them were good then they must all be good. And if they were all good then I should read them all!

So I did read them all but, surprise!, they were not all good. In fact, some of them were very ungood and the process was painful and tedious and aggravating. So many white men! I mean, like, LOTS of white men!

When I finally finished the challenge I thought to myself, “Whew, great job, here’s some cookies and ice cream, now never do anything like that again!” and I assured myself I would never do anything like that again, obviously.

But a few weeks later I read this book called Birdy and I loved it and it turned out it had been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and lost out to The Executioner’s Song, which was a pretty good book but was really more creative nonfiction than a novel, so what the hell was it winning the Fiction category for, you know? And then I thought, “Damn, self, this book was a lot better than the winner. What if all the shortlisted books are better than the winners? You should probably read them all to find out.”

And then I did. Like I said, I’m a little bit stupid.

The good news is that many of them were very, very good and now I get to pretend that I’m some sort of expert on Pulitzer-winning/almost-winning novels but in real life I’m just a person who’s a little bit stupid and likes to create aggravating reading goals for herself.

The other good news is that I’ve compiled a list of books that almost won major awards so you can create your own aggravating reading goal! You’re welcome! I included the Man Booker, National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, and Lambda Literary Awards. And then a few other random selections because they’re great and I like it when people read great things.

  1. A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  2. A Five-Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  3. American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell shortlited for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award
  4. American Woman by Susan Choi shortlisted for the Pulitzer
  5. An Insular Possession by Timothy Mo shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  6. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine shortlisted for the National Book Award
  7. Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  8. Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  9. Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates shortlisted for the National Book Award
  10. Beyond Deserving by Sandra Scofield shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Blue Angel by Francine Prose shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Brick Lane by Monica Ali shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Briefing for a Descent Into Hell by Doris Lessing shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Chromos by Felipe Alfau shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Come to Me: Stories by Amy Bloom shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Doc and Fluff by Patrick Califia shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit by Storm Constantine shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Fledgling by Octavia Butler shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Florida by Christine Schutt shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Geek Love by Katherine Dunn shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Generation Without Farewell by Kay Boyle shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Gorgeous Lies by Martha McPhee shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Highwire Moon by Susan Straight shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Holy Skirts by Rene Steinke shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Hummingbird House by Patricia Henley shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories by Joan Silber shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • In the Garden of Dead Cars by Sybil Claiborne shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education by Sybille Bedford shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat  shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Last Letters from Hav by Jan Morris shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Last Words of Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Le Divorce by Diane Johnson shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Lessons in Murder by Claire McNab shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Look at Me by Jennifer Egan shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Many Mansions by Isabel Bolton shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan shortlisted for the Pulitzer
  • Mighty Good Road by Melissa Scott shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Moses Supposes by Ellen Currie shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Mundane’s World by Judy Grahn shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Our Kind by Kate Walbert shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Praxis by Fay Weldon shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • Refund by Karen Bender shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Sue Slate: Private Eye by Lee Lynch shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Swimming Home by Deborah Levy shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • That Night by Alice McDermott shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award
  • The Big Mama Stories by Shay Youngblood shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • The Black Prince, and Other Stories by Shirley Ann Grau shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Body of a Young Man by Mildred Walker shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • the bull-jean stories by Sharon Bridgforth shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • The Catherine Wheel by Jean Stafford shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Cherokee Rose by Tiya Miles shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • The Collected Stories of Grace Paley shortlisted for the National Book Award
  •  The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Commonwealth Writers Prize, and  International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • The Green Equinox by Elizabeth Mavor shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Healing by Gayl Jones shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferre shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Illusionist by Anita Mason shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Lighthouse by Alison Moore shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • The Lost Father by Mona Simpson shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The River Beyond the World by Janet Peery shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Road to Lichfield by Penelope Lively shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey shortlisted for the Pulitzer
  • The Strange Children by Caroline Gordon shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee shortlisted for the Pulitzer
  • The Turner House by Angela Flournoy shotlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction and  the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
  • The Witch Diggers by Jessamyn West shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
  • They Call Me Mad Dog by Erika Lopez shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • This Place Called Absence by Lydia Kwa shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Trance by Christopher Sorrentino shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Unlocking the Air and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin shortlisted for the Pulitzer
  • Vanished by Mary McGarry Morris shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • Varieties of Disturbance: Stories by Lydia Davis shortlisted for the National Book Award
  • What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award
  • Who Do You Love: Stories by Jean Thompson shortlisted for the National Book Award