As the new executive director of the National Book Foundation, Lisa Lucas, AB’01, wants to get America reading.
About 1,500 titles were sent to the National Book Foundation offices to be considered for this year’s National Book Awards. It was enough to make executive director Lisa Lucas, AB’01, joke about the Collyer brothers, Depression-era hoarders who were found entombed by their own possessions. “We have a lot of books.”
The National Book Awards, established in 1950 to celebrate the best in American literature, are given annually in four categories—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. The piles of submissions that filled the office reflect the awards’ prestige, though the winning books aren’t selected at the foundation. Lucas and her staff verify each book’s eligibility, but it’s 20 independent judges, five per category, who decide the long- and short-listed titles, and the eventual winners. They get some general guidelines from the foundation and meet with judges from the past two years to help ensure consistency in selection criteria, but other than that, it’s up to them, says Lucas.
The writers, booksellers, critics, and librarians who serve as judges are carefully selected each year. “I have such faith in our judges as one voice,” says Lucas, “informed by the weight of the honor that they bestow.” (University of Pennsylvania professor James English, AM’81, is a fiction judge.) They read all summer, and in September called Lucas with the long-listed titles. The five-title short lists were released on October 13. (The nonfiction short list includes The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez, AM’92, PhD’97.) The four winners will be announced November 16.
Lucas, who took the helm of the foundation in March after serving as publisher of literary magazine Guernica, figures she’s not always going to agree completely with the judges’ selections, but that’s OK. “The conversation for me is exciting,” says the woman the Los Angeles Times recently called a “high-energy bookish extrovert.” It means the country has more great books than the awards can recognize, books ready to reflect a reader’s own experience back, or expose them to a new world.
As an only child growing up in suburban New Jersey, Lucas saw books as “all these incredible windows into what other peoples’ lives looked like.” A Wrinkle in Time was a favorite, as were the Baby-Sitters’ Club and Sweet Valley High books (“Stuff kids were reading in the ’80s”). At the College, Herodotus’s The Histories caught her attention—it’s about a “totally different time but it felt so present.” And Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie kept her up several nights in a row, engrossed in turn-of-the-century Chicago.
The National Book Foundation runs several year-round programs designed to get people engaged with literature. The after-school BookUp helps kids start their own home libraries (books can change “young people’s lives and trajectories and opportunities,” says Lucas). Eat, Drink, and Be Literary is a reading series featuring prominent authors. “We’re not a literacy organization,” says Lucas. “What we do is joy work,” reminding people that humor, thrills, or “whatever you’re looking for can be found in those pages.” A growing number of the foundation’s programs are available outside of the New York City area—book publishers may be concentrated there, but readers aren’t, and Lucas wants to reach as many of them as possible.
Lucas sees her role as being “a big old megaphone,” getting people excited about the awards and excited about contemporary writing. That comes easy for a self-described “natural-born cheerleader” for books, who talks about her current reads every chance she gets, including to thousands of Twitter followers. She also believes being the first woman and the first person of color to lead the 67-year-old awards program will help reach more readers. “I think my brain automatically includes people who were not included,” she says. “Thinking about other audiences, broadening the awards, and figuring out how we can engage people”—that’s her job.
Doing that work, from events to marketing to her personal tweets, is what’s going to get more readers excited about the National Book Awards and talking about, and invested in, contemporary writing, says Lucas. “If you do that work throughout the entire year, then you change the audience when November 16 comes.”
Lucas uses the word “audience” a lot—she’s worked in development at Steppenwolf Theatre and the Tribeca Film Institute—and speaks admiringly of how regional theaters and independent film organizations have cultivated their audiences. “They know how to get people sitting in their seats,” she says. “They are out there singing their own praises and encouraging people to think about why their work is important.”
She’s hoping to do the same for books, partnering with literary organizations and funders to celebrate American literature, both during the National Book Awards and all year long. It’s about using the awards platform and the foundation’s name recognition to declare that books are important, says Lucas. To say that literature “helps us to be more empathetic, and to have a better relationship with our fellow Americans; it helps us to be better citizens, it helps us to think bigger in our own lives—and that’s something that’s worth making possible for as many people as we can.”
The long and short lists are available at nationalbook.org. The 2016 National Book Awards will be live streamed on the site on November 16.
The National Book Foundation has recognized many alumni authors in its almost seven decades of presenting the National Book Awards. A selection of titles that have earned an NBA sticker include The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, EX’39, and In America by Susan Sontag, AB’51. They were fiction winners in 1954 and 2000, respectively. American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, AB’84, was a fiction finalist in 2009; This Blue by Maureen N. McLane, PhD’97, was a poetry finalist in 2014; The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez, AM’92, PhD’97, is a current finalist for nonfiction.