The subjects of this year's National Book Award nominees were better known than the authors.
Biographies about tycoons Henry Ford and Cornelius Vanderbilt were among the finalists announced Wednesday, along with two books relating to Charles Darwin. But judges also omitted such widely publicized releases as Lorrie Moore's "At the Gate of the Stairs," Richard Powers' "Generosity" and Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever.
Five books from university presses were among the 20 chosen in four competitive categories. Fiction judges picked Bonnie Jo Campbell's story collection, "American Salvage," a paperback original released by Wayne State University Press, the publisher's first National Book Award nomination in its more than 60 year history.
"We're very pleasantly surprised. We nominate some of our best books each year and we've finally made it," said Wayne State Press director Jane Hoehner. "I don't think awards should just go to the big guns. There needs to be a combination, a willingness to look around and find talent."
Winners, each of whom receive $10,000, will be announced at a Nov. 18 ceremony in New York. Humorist Andy Borowitz will host and honorary medals will be presented to Dave Eggers and Gore Vidal, to be introduced by actress and longtime friend Joanne Woodward.
None of the many recent books about Abraham Lincoln, whose bicentennial was celebrated this year, were included. Darwin, born the same day as Lincoln, was featured in two nominated works: Sean B. Carroll's "Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species," a nonfiction finalist; and young people's literature nominee "Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith," by Deborah Seligman.
Marcel Theroux, son of travel writer and former National Book Award finalist Paul Theroux, was a fiction nominee for "Far North," a story of global warming disaster set around Siberia.
Also selected were such critical favorites as Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin," Daniyal Mueenuddin's book of stories "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" and Jayne Anne Phillips' "Lark & Termite."
The National Book Awards have long been subject to competing demands — for picking well-known books of which readers have heard and for picking books that would otherwise elude readers. Larger publishers, eager for sales and visibility, have complained that the National Book Awards were too exclusive and briefly supported an alternative, the Quills, people's choice awards that shut down in 2008.
Few may have heard of the fiction finalists — the five books combined have sold just under 40,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of industry sales. But the public, as it did with the Quills, will get a chance to pick a prize.
This is the 60th year of the National Book Awards and readers can vote online (http://www.nationalbook.org) for the greatest fiction winner. The choices include Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" and story collections by Cheever, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty.
"I think that the tension between commerce and art exists in any cultural industry," says Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards. "That tension is a good thing. What you want is a little bit of both; you want attention for artists and you want awareness of the general public."
T.J. Stiles' "The First Tycoon" and Greg Grandin's "Fordlandia," about Henry Ford's ill-fated effort to set up a colony in Brazil, were nonfiction nominees, along with Carroll's "Remarkable Creatures" and David M. Carroll's journal of New England wildlife "Following the Water."
The fifth nonfiction finalist was Adrienne Mayor's "The Poison King," a biography of the Greco-Persian ruler Mithradates.
Besides Seligman's "Charles and Emma," young people's literature finalists included Phillip Hoose's "Claudette Colvin," David Small's graphic work "Stitches," Laini Taylor's "Lips Touch" and Rita Williams-Garcia's "Jumped."
The poetry nominees were Rae Armantrout's "Versed," Ann Lauterbach's "Or to Begin Again," Carl Phillips' "Speak Low," Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon's "Open Interval" and Keith Waldrop's "Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy."