Manning Marable didn't live to hear the praise, or respond to the controversy.
Manning's "Malcolm X," a year project, was among the finalists announced Wednesday for the National Book Awards. Published just days after the Columbia University professor's death, Marable's book was celebrated for its scholarship and its doubts about the official story of Malcolm X's 1965 assassination leading to new calls for an investigation. Marable also alleged that Malcolm had exaggerated his criminal past and, to the unhappiness of some of Malcolm's children, that he had a much more difficult marriage than previously believed.
"He wanted to get past the legend and present Malcolm as a complex human being," said Marable's widow, Leith Mullings. "It's very bittersweet, the nomination. I'm heartbroken that he can't be here to have been part of this recognition. On the other hand, it's wonderful that he finished the book."
Marable died in April at age 60 from complications of pneumonia. He is not the first posthumous nominee. In 2004, Donald Justice was a finalist for his "Collected Poems."
Debut novelist Tea Obreht and longtime poet and former National Book Award winner Adrienne Rich were also on this year's list of 21 nominees, five each in four categories. Several finalists were published by small presses, from TriQuarterly to Graywolf. Fiction nominee Edith Pearlman's story collection "Binocular Vision" was released through Lookout Books in Wilmington, N.C., while Andrew Krivak's "The Sojourn" came out from Bellevue Literary Press, based at the famous hospital in New York City and the publisher of Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Tinkers."
The 26-year-old Obreht was cited for "The Tiger's Wife," a haunting novel about displacement that has already won Britain's Orange Prize for best fiction by a woman. Others in the fiction category were Julia Otsuka's "The Buddha in the Attic" and Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones." Another widely praised first novel, Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," was not selected. Neither was Joan Didion's "Blue Nights," her follow-up to the National Book Award-winning "The Year of Magical Thinking," nor Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot," his first novel since the Pulitzer-winning "Middlesex."
Besides Marable, nonfiction finalists included Harvard University scholar Stephen Greenblatt for "The Swerve," his story of the Renaissance-era rediscovery of Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" and the Latin poem's influence on Western thinking. The other nominees were Deborah Baker's "The Convert" and two biographies of married couples: Mary Gabriel's "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution"; and Lauren Redniss' "Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout."
The National Books Awards are chosen by separate panels of writers for each retrospective category. Judges looked through 1,223 books in all.
While fiction judges focused on lesser-known authors, the poetry panel selected some of the biggest names in the field, including the 82-year-old Rich ("Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010"), Carl Phillips ("Double Shadow") and Yusef Komunyakaa ("The Chameleon Couch"). The other finalists were Nikky Finney's "Head Off & Split" and Bruce Smith's "Devotions."
Lauren Myracle, whose candid teen and tween novels have ended up both on best-of lists and lists of books parents and educators complain about, is a young people's literature finalist for "Shine." The other nominees were Franny Billingsley's "Chime," Debby Dahl Edwardson's "My Name Is Not Easy," Thanhha Lai's "Inside Out and Back Again," "Albert Marrin's Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy" and Gary D. Schmidt's "Okay for Now."
Miscommunication between young people's literature judges and the awards' sponsor, the National Book Foundation, led to confusion over whether Myracle was a finalist. She was on the original list given to the media, then withdrawn when the foundation said her book had been mistakenly included over Billingley's "Chime." The foundation then decided to make both books nominees, and have one extra for the category.
Winners, each of whom receive $10,000, will be announced at a Nov. 16 ceremony in New York hosted by actor-author John Lithgow. Honorary prizes will be presented to poet John Ashbery and Florida-based bookseller Mitchell Kaplan.