What I Learned Reading an Awards Longlist for the First Time

Books

I’ve never paid much attention to literary awards. I’m not the kind of reader who eagerly anticipates the Booker longlist announcement or stays up late watching awards ceremonies. Until recently, when I started spending more time on Bookstagram, it was unusual that I even knew what books had won which awards. Literary awards, as far as I’m concerned, are fairly arbitrary. They don’t excite me.

I do, however, love a reading project. There’s an active community of readers on Bookstagram who read various awards longlists and shortlists every year, and I’ve always been intrigued by them. It’s hard to resist a checklist! I’ve been pondering giving it a go for a while, so I paid more attention than usual to awards this year. 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 prizes were announced, there was always at least one book I had no interest in. I’m all for reading outside my comfort zone, and yes, I love a checklist, but gone are the days when I force myself to read something 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 that if I ever encountered an awards longlist that contained only books I was genuinely interested in, I would read it.

Enter the 2022 National Book Award longlist for fiction. I was immediately drawn to this list because it included two of my favorite books of the year: All This Could Be Different and The Town of Babylon. I hadn’t heard of most of the others, but, after looking them all up, I was delighted (and, let’s be honest, a little shocked) to realize that yes, they all sounded interesting. Yes, I was genuinely excited to read all eight of the books I hadn’t read. I was going to do it! I put them all on hold at 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 was going to be my list, baby!

It did not go that way. I read all ten books, yes. Of the eight I hadn’t read, I loved three of them. The other five? Meh. They were fine. They were not for me. If I hadn’t committed to the project, I would have DNFed them. What’s more: I knew after about 30 pages that they weren’t going to do it for me. I kept going — I was prepared to be surprised! — but I was not surprised. Conversely, regarding those 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 a best book of the year for me. I read If I Survive You in a day because I didn’t want to put it down. I’d already been excited about 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) it’s not something I enjoy and b) my opinion is my opinion and it’s not objective or even especially useful to anyone else. Not every book is going to land with every person. There are people who didn’t love All This Could Be Different, and I don’t understand it, but it’s fine! I’m not offended. We are all unique and art hits us all differently, that’s the point. Unless a book is perpetuating racism/transphobia/etc., there’s room for all kinds.

I went into the project with an open mind, ready to discover new books. I did, in fact, discover new books. I also discovered that I know what I like. And this, it turns out, is the biggest gift the project gave me. The moral of this story, for me, is not to stay inside your comfort zone, to never explore new genres, to never give books you’re unsure of a chance, to never challenge yourself. These are all things I do, and gladly. No: what I learned from this project is that it’s possible to do all of those things and still, at the same time, trust 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 lying in bed, and it was past my bedtime, but I decided to read the first story anyway. Then I just walked around my house in circles for a while, pondering, feeling, because wow is that story a banger. I never would have read this book if not for the NBA longlist. It wasn’t on my radar. I don’t typically pick up non-queer books these days, unless they come highly recommended. I like short story collections, but I don’t gravitate toward them. But reading Hotak reminded me how incredible it feels to discover and fall in love with an unexpected book.

I will never be reading another awards longlist. I still think literary awards are arbitrary, and this experience only confirmed that belief for me. I ended up reading a bunch of books that weren’t for me because of a silly goal I set for myself, and who has time for that? But I don’t regret it because here’s what I will absolutely be doing more of: picking up books that intrigue me but fall outside my go-to genres. Picking up books by debut authors I’ve never heard of because they’re longlisted for an award, and sure, that synopsis sounds fascinating. Picking up books there’s a chance I’ll like even if the structure/theme/plot isn’t something I’d normally be excited about. I will keep doing this forever, and I know I’ll discover many wonderful books because of it. But if a book I pick up isn’t working for me—

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

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