Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Johnson take prizes at the 2015 National Book Awards

Coates' 'Between the World and Me' and Johnson's 'Fortune Smiles' won the nonfiction and fiction awards, respectively, at this year's National Book Awards. Johnson's work is the second short story collection in two years to win the fiction prize.

'Between the World and Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates and 'Fortune Smiles' by Adam Johnson took some of the major prizes at the National Book Awards.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and Adam Johnson’s “Fortune Smiles,” took some of the major prizes at the 2015 National Book Awards.

Coates’ “Between,” which is a discussion of race addressed to the writer’s son, won the nonfiction National Book Award. Monitor reviewer Chris Hartman called “Between” “a highly provocative, thoughtfully presented, and beautifully written narrative concerning his own misgivings about the ongoing racial struggle in America.” 

Meanwhile, Johnson took the National Book Award for fiction for “Smiles,” his short story collection.

Writer Neal Shusterman won the young people’s literature prize for his book “Challenger Deep,” which tells the story of a teenager who is diagnosed with schizophrenia and the interaction of his hallucinations and his real life. “Voyage of the Sable Venus” by Robin Coste Lewis took the poetry prize for the year.

“Smiles” taking the prestigious fiction prize is unusual, as short story collections don’t often take the award. Notable works in the same vein that won the fiction prize before now include last year’s winner, Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” as well as Andrea Barrett’s “Ship Fever and Other Stories,” which took the prize in 1996, and “Easy in the Islands” by Bob Shacochis, which won in 1985. 

Many factors, of course, go into the judges’ decision to give the National Book Award to its recipient. But two short story collections taking the fiction prize two years in a row shows that a collection winning the award is far from impossible, and collections continue to break through with audiences, too – Stephen King’s story collection “Bazaar of Bad Dreams” is currently a bestseller (though of course King’s work comes with his celebrity attached) and “Redeployment” became a bestseller as well after its publication. George Saunders’ “Tenth of December” also did well in sales.

"I think they're difficult," Johnson himself said of short stories in an NPR interview. "But they can be very perfect and powerful."

Why would readers pick up a short story collection? Writer Elizabeth Day, who co-created a short story salon, told the Telegraph in 2014, “Life is increasingly hectic and connected. Many people struggle to find the time to engage with a full-length novel when they’re dealing with emails every second of every day or having to meet deadlines or rush home to put the kids to bed. A short story offers the perfect antidote – it’s the equivalent of listening to a single track of music instead of the whole album.”

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