Predicting 2017-18 Literary Prize Winners

It is still early time for the 2017-18 literary prizes (see 2016-17 literary award winners here) - with the firsts, the Nobel and Booker, scheduled for October, followed by the trio of American awards, the National Book Award in November, the National Book Critics Award in the following March, and, finally, ending with the Pulitzer in April - but I thought we can run a list of the potential finalists.

Now, we can run some serious regression analysis like the standard linear, multivariate ordinary least square or the classification and regression tree - and indeed, at least one site devoted to the Pulitzer has been doing it - but I'm just wondering if a simple, univariate model works as well as the complex or sophisticated one in predicting literary prize winners. So here's my prediction model: I'm going to read the book reviews in the New York Times and pick no more than 10 books based on my subjective interpretation. At the end of the year, we will then see how well this parsimonious, if somewhat judgmental, approach will perform in predicting the finalist and winners of the American trio.

Is the NYT book review the best predictor? Probably not, but relying on a single factor almost always render the model easier to understand. And the NYT reviews a lot of books, so that's a good start. For an indication of NYT book review's predictive value, we only need to turn to the first two paragraphs of Michiko Kakutani's review of the big award winner, Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad":

"In his dynamic new novel, Colson Whitehead takes the Underground Railroad — the loosely interlocking network of black and white activists who helped slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War — and turns it from a metaphor into an actual train that ferries fugitives northward.

The result is a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery. It possesses the chilling, matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and with brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift."

So here are the first selections and no more than two paragraphs of their NYT book reviews. For an update on the major literary awards for 2017-18, click here.

Updated 07 Sep: since the inception of this prediction list, the Man Booker prized announced its longlist, and we got two hits on the list of eight. Not to bad, but the exclusion of Cusk's "Transit" was a real surprise to me.

Updated 18 Oct: It looks like this very simple prediction method works very well, for the Booker prize at least. Of the eight shortlisted books here, we have one Booker finalist and one winner - George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, and this is despite the fact that I got lazy and stop updating the list since May. That probably explains this list's abysmal performance in the National Book Award: it has got none of the finalists, although, honestly, I had wanted to add Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing. Maybe I'll work harder next year.


1. Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout
Jennifer Senior. April 28, 2017: “Anything Is Possible” is certainly more grim than Strout’s previous work. It’s more audacious, too, and more merciless, daring you to walk away. “Little House on the Prairie” assumes a mythic status among some of its characters. This book is its terrible opposite. No chirping families to be found among the swaying golden fields here.

But the writing is wrenchingly lovely. It almost always is with Strout, whether she’s knitting metaphors or summarizing, with agonizing economy, whole episodes of a life: “Having met in their late thirties, they’d had only eight years together. No children. Patty had never known a better man.”You read Strout, really, for the same reason you listen to a requiem: to experience the beauty in sadness.

2. Trajectory, Richard Russo
Jennifer Senior. May 10, 2017Few authors do male vulnerability as well as Richard Russo. Even his rascals you want to wrap in tissue paper for safekeeping. (Well, not all of them. But most.) He may be renowned for his cuddly rogues, but he also specializes in their opposites — unentitled men who are unassuming and hopeless around women and rumbling with uncertainty. Russo is the troubadour of self-deprecation.

Unfortunately, Nolan could be an Everyman only onscreen. “Ironically, it was in real life that being ‘regular’ had become unattainable,” the narrator concludes. Regular Bill disappears into the sunset by the story’s end, presumably to continue with his charmed, bespoke life. But the narrator — a genuine Everyman and substitute for so many of us — will go on to face a reality far more brutal and complicated. It will abruptly break your heart. That’s what Richard Russo does, without pretension or fuss, time and time again.

3. The Dinner Party and Other Stories, Joshua Ferris
Will Blythe. May 10, 2017For some accomplished novelists — and Ferris is one of the best of our day — short stories are mere doodles, warm ups or warm downs, slight variations on themes better addressed at length. In culinary terms appropriate to the collection’s title, appetizers. Not so for Ferris. Dynamic with speed, yet rich with novelistic density, his stories make “The Dinner Party” a full-fledged feast, especially for readers with a particular taste for the many flavors of American crazy.

4.  Borne, Jeff Vandermeer
Wai Chee Dimock. May 5, 2017Here is the story about biotech that VanderMeer wants to tell, a vision of the nonhuman not as one fixed thing, one fixed destiny, but as either peaceful or catastrophic, by our side or out on a rampage as our behavior dictates — for these are our children, born of us and now to be borne in whatever shape or mess we have created. This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th.

Michiko Kakutani. Feb 6, 2017George Saunders’s much-awaited first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is like a weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life. Picture, as a backdrop, one of those primitively drawn 19th-century mourning paintings with rickety white gravestones and age-worn monuments standing under the faded green canopy of a couple of delicately sketched trees. Add a tall, sad mourner, grieving over his recently deceased son. And then, to make things stranger, populate the rest of the scene with some Edward Gorey-style ghosts, skittering across the landscape — at once menacing, comical and slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Saunders’s novel is at its most potent and compelling when it is focused on Lincoln: a grave, deeply compassionate figure, burdened by both personal grief and the weight of the war, and captured here in the full depth of his humanity. In fact, it is Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln — caught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it were — that powers this book over its more static sections and attests to the author’s own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.

6. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (likely ineligible for Pulitzer and NBA; Shortlisted, Booker Prize)
Michiko Kakutani. Feb 27, 2017: Mohsin Hamid’s dynamic yet lapidary books have all explored the convulsive changes overtaking the world, as tradition and modernity clash headlong, and as refugees — fleeing war or poverty or hopelessness — try to make their way to safer ground. His compelling new novel, “Exit West,” is no exception, recounting the story of the migrants Saeed and Nadia, who leave an unnamed country in the midst of a civil war and journey to Greece, England and eventually the United States in an effort to invent new lives for themselves.

By mixing the real and the surreal, and using old fairy-tale magic, Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines, while at the same time painting an unnervingly dystopian portrait of what might lie down the road. The world in “Exit West” is, in many respects, an extrapolation of the world we live in now, with wars like the one in Syria turning cities into war zones; with political crises, warp-speed technological changes, and growing tensions between nativists and migrants threatening to upend millions of lives.

7. American War, Omar El Akkad (likely ineligible for Pulitzer and NBA)
Michiko Kakutani. March 27, 2017Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, “American War,” is an unlikely mash-up of unsparing war reporting and plot elements familiar to readers of the recent young-adult dystopian series “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” From these incongruous ingredients, El Akkad has fashioned a surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in “The Road” (2006), and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth did in “The Plot Against America” (2004).

It becomes clear to the reader pretty early on just what Gaines is recruiting Sarat to do — in fact, El Akkad scatters a bread-crumb trail of clues through the novel, as he tracks Sarat’s increasingly risky peregrinations after a gruesome massacre at Camp Patience. In recounting Sarat’s emotional evolution — and the dreadful choices she will be asked to make — El Akkad has written a novel that not only maps the harrowing effects of violence on one woman and her family, but also becomes a disturbing parable about the ruinous consequences of war on ordinary civilians.

8. Transit, Rachel Cusk (likely ineligible for Pulitzer and NBA)
Dwight Gardner. January 17, 2017: We know this Faye. She was the narrator of Ms. Cusk’s previous novel, “Outline” (2015). These two short books are part of a projected trilogy, and together they’re already a serious achievement: dense, aphoristic, philosophically acute novels that read like Iris Murdoch thrice distilled.

Ms. Cusk is perhaps more profitably compared to writers like J. M. Coetzee and Mr. Roth himself. Her writing offers the iron-rich pleasures of voice instead of style. Each sentence is drilled down, as with an auger.


The Book of Joan, Lydia Yuknavitch (replaced by Mohsin Hamid's Exit West)

Jeff Vandermeer. April 25, 2017Post-apocalyptic fiction too often pays lip service to serious problems like climate change while allowing the reader to walk away unscathed, cocooned in an ironic escapism and convinced that the impending disaster is remote. Not so with Lidia Yuknavitch’s brilliant and incendiary new novel, which speaks to the reader in raw, boldly honest terms. “The Book of Joan” has the same unflinching quality as earlier works by Josephine Saxton, Doris Lessing, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin and J. G. Ballard. Yet it’s also radically new, full of maniacal invention and page-turning momentum.

Telling the truth with precision and rage and a visionary’s eye, using both realism and fabulism, is one way to break through the white noise of a consumerist culture that tries to commodify post-apocalyptic fiction, to render it safe. But in Yuknavitch’s work there’s no quick cauterizing of the wound, nothing to allow us to engage in escapism. The result is a rich, heady concoction, rippling with provocative ideas. There is nothing in “The Book of Joan” that is not a great gift to Yuknavitch’s readers, if only they are ready to receive it.


·        Homesick for another world, Ottessa Moshfegh

·        The Idiot, Elif Batuman

·        What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah