Written by By Rhiannon Mallay, CNN
On June 7th, the American Library Association (ALA) celebrates the 70th anniversary of the organization’s annual list of the best books published in the US in the previous year. The list is best known for its unique top pick, the overall “best book of the year,” but is also recognized as a useful snapshot of a collection of bestsellers that can tell us about our tastes.
Some list winners have been famous for years: Dorothy Parker’s “Too Much Bread,” Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel,” and Lydia Davis’ “Mt. Vernon, Idaho,” for example. Of course, winners aren’t always known at the time. In 1934, Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” won, but was no longer published.
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Writing about ‘nonfiction books’
By including so many — apparently every other week, the ALA announces its nonfiction list — the list subtly reveals which genres are popular today, like nonfiction (Pulitzer Prize winning “Everything Is Miscellaneous” by Shon Hopwood).
“We open up our facility to all types of fiction and nonfiction books,” says ALA public policy advocate Kristin Brzezinski. “We take care to look beyond mass market, and make a distinction between genre and art.”
In 2015, President Barack Obama signed legislation that created a competition for public libraries to enter a request for proposal for the best book of the year, inviting submissions from both nontraditional libraries and regular libraries. (Nontraditional libraries today include libraries that serve sites like preschools, colleges, and universities, as well as places where young people live and work.)
This year, the ALA is celebrating the ALA Literary Awards, in which 16 fiction and nonfiction writers and four nonfiction writers were honored with $10,000 prizes. “Money’s not going to a lot of writers, so the prize is pretty significant,” says Julie Sowerby of the publishing company Cora, which has won the award for fiction twice before (in 1996 and 2004).
The prizes are worth about $50,000 combined, which Sowerby says is a “pretty decent amount” for a modern publishing house. The books highlighted on the ALA’s list “are in very small print,” so most publishers do not make a publishing profit on a book of this type. “We’re not looking for volume,” says Sowerby.
Plenty of winners are popular
Indeed, despite being a widely accepted annual event, the ALA Literary Awards are relatively unheralded: “The awards are usually really small, and the lists are really niche and specific,” says Brzezinski. That’s why it’s notable that the top honors on the 2018 list include such eclectic works.
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This year’s award for fiction went to Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” winner of the Margaret Mead Prize for Nonfiction. Lamott, best known for her advice about the “that’s them” – that which shouldn’t matter — is often credited with transforming the way we write, although today’s more difficult writing environments “may have shaped it even more,” says Brzezinski.
Overall best book of the year went to the autobiography “A Movement Made Up of Empty Words,” written by Adam Rifkin, also a winner in the fiction category for his novel “Rain.”
“He’s making real history with his novel and with the book,” says Brzezinski. “He’s doing something that would have been almost impossible to do for a nonfiction writer a few years ago.”