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Five fiction finalists disown rivals label

From Associated Press

Author Lily Tuck says she would be pleased to see any of the five National Book Awards fiction finalists receive the prize, a generous statement given that Tuck herself is among the nominees.

“There’s a feeling of solidarity and supportiveness for each other,” says Tuck, cited for “The News From Paraguay,” a novel set in the 19th century. “We all feel very lucky to have gotten this far.”

The National Book Awards, which take place Wednesday in New York, are the publishing industry’s answer to the Academy Awards, with presumably nervous, competitive nominees gathered to hear who wins. Prizes will be given out for fiction, nonfiction, young people’s literature and poetry.

But this year’s group of fiction writers -- Tuck, Joan Silber, Kate Walbert, Christine Schutt and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum -- don’t consider themselves rivals and have little in common with movie stars.

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None of them compares in fame to Philip Roth, whose “The Plot Against America” had been expected to receive a nomination. But the finalists -- all New York residents -- have quietly established themselves in the literary community.

Bynum’s short story, “Accomplice,” was included in the Best American Short Stories of 2004, while both Walbert and Schutt have won the prestigious O. Henry Prize for short fiction. Both Tuck and Silber have been writing for years, with Silber winning a PEN/Hemingway prize, in 1980, for her debut book, “Household Words.”

“Only in a culture that forgets both books and writers within months of their publication could you call either [Silber and Tuck] obscure,” says Andrea Barrett, winner of a National Book Award in 1996 for the short-story collection “Ship Fever.”

All five nominees said they had read at least some of their fellow finalists’ work and speak admiringly of what they’ve seen. In one case, the connection is personal: Tuck and Schutt live around the corner from each other.

The books were inspired by personal memories, historical events, anecdotes and other authors. The stories vary from the contemporary sagas of Schutt’s “Florida” and Walbert’s “Our Kind” to the historical setting of Tuck’s “The News From Paraguay” to a timeless fairy tale, Bynum’s “Madeleine Is Sleeping,” the only debut book among the finalists. Silber’s “Ideas of Heaven” is a collection of stories about desire and the fickle search for transcendence -- through sex, love or religion.

The authors say they’ve had the common struggles of writers without large audiences: rejections from publishers, early work going out of print, writing time limited by family commitments and day jobs needed to help support themselves.

“I think the other writers had all reached the point I had, discouraged to see work you consider weak to be extolled over your own,” says Schutt, who has two grown children and has taught at several schools.

“So you just keep writing your own kind of books and hope those books will stay alive.”

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