I love many, many books labeled literary fiction even though I despise the term. It’s a useless signifier that doesn’t actually mean anything. I will die on this hill. However, I am just one person talking about books on the internet, and my hatred of the term isn’t going to make it disappear. So, let’s set that aside and talk about some amazing, award-winning literary fiction you might not have heard of!
Literary fiction, as a category, tends to win a lot of awards. Many of the big book prizes — the Booker, the Pulitzer, the National Book Awards — are geared toward “literary” books. But there are a lot more under-the-radar literary fiction books out there than you might think. There are quite a few small prizes that don’t get the same kind of attention, and often the winning books are truly wonderful: small press books or experimental works more mainstream prizes sometimes pass over.
These eight award-winning books have all been published in the last three years. They take place all over the world, from India to Greece to Lebanon to Trinidad. There are short story collections and novels. Some are fairly straightforward, while others play with form — there’s even a novel in verse! Most of them have under 500 ratings on Goodreads.
What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle (2021 Barbellion Prize)
The Barbellion Prize, founded in 2020, is a literary award dedicated to celebrating and uplifting disabled literature. The 2021 winner is this contemplative novel about the relationship between a deaf child and her grandmother. The two of them build their own language, using elements of sign language as well as their own home signs, facial expressions, and movement. It’s a quiet coming-of-age story, an ode to the natural world, and a beautiful exploration of what it means to belong to someone or someplace.
Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok (2020 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize)
In these interconnected short stories, Mimi Lok delves into the lives of diasporic women, set in a variety of places and time periods, from California to the UK to Hong Kong. Themes of isolation, loneliness, migration, history, womanhood, and the search for meaningful connection reverberate throughout the whole collection. If you’re a fan of short fiction, this is one not to miss.
The Call-Out by Cat Fitzpatrick (2023 Lambda Award for Transgender Fiction)
When was the last time you read a novel in verse about a group of trans women in Brooklyn? Probably never! This creative and deeply moving novel is a loose retelling of the Russian novel Eugene Onegin, though many of its concerns are decidedly 21st century: cancel culture, generational differences in activist movements, city life, what it means to belong to an identity-based community. It’s both a juicy, gossipy drama about friendships, fallouts, and hookups, and a nuanced look at healing, trauma, and public and private accountability.
Delhi: A Soliloquy by M. Mukundan, translated by Fathima E.V. and Nandakumar K. (2021 JCB Prize for Indian Literature)
If you’re the kind of reader who loves books where cities are their own characters, this is a must-read novel. It follows Sahadevan, a young man living in Delhi, as he lives through crisis after crisis, both personal and global, from the 1960s through the 1980s. Interspersed with Sahadevan’s story are the stories of many other characters — artists, students, activists, and others — who are all caught up in the shifting political currents of a complicated city.
The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine (2022 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction)
This is one of those books that I recommend to just about everyone, and yet it still seems to have flown somewhat under the radar. It’s funny, tender, wise, playful, and full of hope, despite the heavy subject matter. Mina is a trans Lebanese American doctor who decides to spend some time volunteering at refugee camps on Lesbos. While there, she reconnects with her brother, meets a famous novelist, and reflects on the challenges and joys of her own life. It’s meditative but deeply human book.
A Shock by Keith Ridgway (2021 James Tait Black Prize for Fiction)
I’m starting to think that prize-winning story collections and novels-in-stories don’t get the same attention as prize-winning novels because there are so many brilliant ones on this list with disappointingly few Goodreads ratings! This one focuses on a collection of characters in London, many of them queer, and many of them living on the fringes, doing whatever it takes to survive. It’s a kaleidoscopic and refreshingly frank look at contemporary urban life.
Pleasantview by Celeste Mohammed (2022 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature)
This is another novel-in-stories, this one set in a fictional town in Trinidad. Mohammed writes through and around several events and acts of violence, exploring them from different perspectives and points of view. The result is a portrait of a town that is disturbing, vibrant, and full of contradictions. This is often a difficult book to read, as Mohammed faces trauma and legacies of violence head-on, but it is both impactful and moving.
Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks (2021 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction)
Set in 1957 at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, this novel follows Alice Young, who leaves home to begin life in New Jessup, an all-Black town in Alabama that has rejected the idea that integration will lead to liberation. Life in New Jessup is full of complications, especially when Alice falls for a young activist whose beliefs don’t always align with those held by the town’s leadership. This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking debut.