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The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Short List Gets It Right

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Rebecca Hussey

Staff Writer

Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, by Kia Corthron

The Girls, by Emma Cline

Here Comes the Sun, by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

How I Became a North Korean, by Krys Lee

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge

What Belongs To You, by Garth Greenwell

What stands out about this year’s short list is its wonderful diversity. Of the seven books on the list, six are written by women. Five of those women are women of color. Two are African-American (Kia Corthron and Kaitlyn Greenidge), one was born in Jamaica and now lives in the U.S. (Nicole Dennis-Benn), one was born in Ghana and was raised in the U.S. (Yaa Gyasi), and one is of Asian descent, born in the U.S. and now living in South Korea (Krys Lee). The one man on the list, Garth Greenwell, is celebrated for having written a great gay novel.

The books themselves are exciting. I’ve read We Love You, Charlie Freeman and I thought it was great: that novel plus Homegoing and The Girls are Book Riot favorites. I’ve heard raves about What Belongs To You and have it on my TBR list. And on the strength of those four picks, I’m adding the others to my TBR right away. This is exactly what a great list should do: draw readers in with known favorites and then introduce them to books they may not have heard of that they might possibly love.

The Center for Fiction has awarded its First Novel Prize since 2006, with previous winners including Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique, and most recently The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It’s a valuable and increasingly-important prize that highlights debut fiction and helps launch the careers of promising writers. The winner receives $10,000 and each short-listed author receives $1,000.

It’s no accident that this list is so diverse and exciting: not only is debut fiction generally very strong right now, but the Center for Fiction has a history of rewarding great novels of all kinds. And its panel of judges this year is diverse, including Viet Thanh Nguyen and Chris Abani among its five readers.

So, congrats to all the short-listed authors, and congrats to the Center for Fiction, for getting it right.