February 3, 2023

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What I learned from reading an awards longlist for the first time

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I’ve never paid much attention to literary awards. I’m not the kind of reader who eagerly awaits the announcement of the Booker longlist or stays up late to watch awards shows. Until recently, when I started spending more time on Bookstagram, it was unusual for me to even know which books had won which awards. Literary awards are pretty arbitrary in my opinion. You don’t excite me.

However, I do love a reading project. There is an active community of readers on Bookstagram who read various longlists and shortlists for awards each year and I’ve always been intrigued by them. It’s hard to resist a checklist! I’ve been thinking about trying it for a while, so this year I paid more attention to the awards than usual. I considered reading a few different longlists – the Booker Prize, the International Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize , the Women’s Prize for Fiction. But when the longlists for these awards were announced, there was always at least one book I wasn’t interested in. I’m all for reading outside of my comfort zone, and yes I love a checklist, but gone are the times I push myself to read because I think I should. I considered reading a longlist minus one, but I’m a completist and that doesn’t have the same appeal. So I told myself if I ever came across an awards longlist that only had books I was really interested in, I would read them.

Join the 2022 National Book Award for Fiction Longlist. I was immediately drawn to this list because it contained two of my favorite books of the year: All This Could Be Different and The Town of Babylon. Most of the others I’d never heard of, but after going through them all I was pleased (and, let’s be honest, a little shocked) to find that they all sounded interesting. Yes, I was really excited to read all eight books that I hadn’t read. I would do it! I put them all back in the library. I posted about it on Bookstagram. I was ready to discover more brilliance on par with All This Could Be Different and The Town of Babylon! This list should be my list baby!

It didn’t work that way. I’ve read all ten books, yes. Of the eight I hadn’t read, I loved three. The other five? meh You were fine. You weren’t for me. If I hadn’t committed to the project, I would have put her on DNF. What’s more, I knew after about 30 pages that they wouldn’t do it for me. I kept going – I was ready to be surprised! – but I wasn’t surprised. Conversely to these three books I loved: I loved them immediately. I knew from the first story in The Haunting of Hajji Hotak that it was going to be my best book of the year. I read If I Survive You in one day because I couldn’t put it down. I was looking forward to “When We Were Sisters” but it exceeded all my expectations.

Let me be clear: I am not criticizing any of the books on this longlist. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing books, but a) I don’t enjoy it and b) my opinion is my opinion and it’s not objective or even particularly useful to others. Not every book will end up with every person. There are people who didn’t love All This Could Be Different and I don’t get it, but it’s ok! I am not offended. We are all unique and art affects us all differently, that’s the point. Unless a book contains racism/transphobia/etc.

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I went into the project with an open mind and was ready to discover new books. I actually discovered new books. I’ve also discovered that I know what I like. And that, as it turns out, is the greatest gift the project has given me. The moral of this story for me is not stay in your comfort zone, never explore new genres, never give books you are unsure about, never give a chance, never challenge yourself. Those are all things I do and love to do. No: What I learned from this project is that it is possible to do all these things while trusting your instincts.

I may never forget where I was when I read the first story in Jamil Jan Kochai’s masterful collection The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. I was in bed and my bedtime was up, but I decided to read the first story anyway. Then I just walked in circles around my house for a while, brooding, feeling, because wow, this story is a blast. If it wasn’t for the NBA longlist, I would never have read this book. It wasn’t on my radar. I usually don’t take non-queer books these days unless they’re highly recommended. I like short story collections, but I don’t like them. But reading Hotak reminded me how amazing it feels to discover an unexpected book and fall in love with it.

I will never read an award longlist again. I still think literary awards are arbitrary, and this experience only reinforced that belief for me. I ended up reading a few books that weren’t for me because I set a stupid goal, and who has time for that? But I don’t regret it, because I’ll definitely be doing that more: picking up books that fascinate me but fall outside of my favorite genres. I take books from debut authors I’ve never heard of because they’re longlisted for an award, and sure, that summary sounds intriguing. When I buy books there’s a chance I’ll like them, even if the structure/theme/plot isn’t something I’d normally get excited about. I will do this forever and I know I will discover many wonderful books through it. But when a book I pick up doesn’t work for me—

My fellow readers, DNFing is an act of love. This book wasn’t meant for you. Pass it on.