Jhumpa Lahiri and Thomas Pynchon among finalists for the National Book Awards

Sang Tan/AP - Jhumpa Lahiri poses with her book ‘The Lowland’ in London. Lahiri, Thomas Pynchon, and George Saunders were among the finalists Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 for the National Book Awards.

The nation’s most deliberative literary contest just crept one more step closer to the finish line: The number of finalists for the National Book Awards has been cut in half — from 40 to 20. It’s time to start paying attention.

Jhumpa Lahiri lost out to Eleanor Catton for the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday night, but she survived Wednesday morning’s elimination round for the NBA fiction prize. Washington writers Alice McDermott and Anthony Marra have been dropped.

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(Penguin) - \"Bleeding Edge\" by Thomas Pynchon

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The famously reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon is back among the finalists for the third time. But put your iPhones away — finalists aren’t required to attend the awards ceremony. (Tom Wolfe famously didn’t show when he was nominated for “A Man in Full” back in 1998.)

Wednesday’s winnowing follows last month’s day-by-day release of 10 titles for each of the four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young adults. This year’s new multistep trek toward the Nov. 20 ceremony was designed to honor more books, involve more publishers and excite more readers.

For the second year in a row, the final finalists were announced on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” That venue still strikes me as an odd one for the National Book Awards, but it’s an indication of the foundation’s efforts to attract wider attention.

In a particularly welcome move, the foundation is releasing a free e-book that contains excerpts from all the finalists.

This year, the panels of judges for each category were enlarged to include booksellers, critics and scholars. If, as rumored, those changes were made to ensure a more star-studded list of finalists, they’ve succeeded. The fiction list, for instance, now contains previous NBA finalist Rachel Kushner; Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize winner; previous NBA winner Pynchon and New Yorker magazine short story writer George Saunders.

The nonfiction list is equally dazzling: Pulitzer Prize-finalist Jill Lepore, New Yorker writer George Packer, Pulitzer Prize-winner Alan Taylor and former National Book Award finalist Lawrence Wright.

Here’s the complete list of finalists:

Fiction

●“The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner (Scribner)

●“The Lowland,” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)

●“The Good Lord Bird,” by James McBride (Riverhead)

●“Bleeding Edge,” by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin)

●“Tenth of December,” by George Saunders (Random House)

Nonfiction

●“Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” by Jill Lepore (Knopf)

●“Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields,” by Wendy Lower (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

●“The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” by George Packer (Farrar Straus Giroux)

●“The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832,” by Alan Taylor (Norton)

●“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief,” by Lawrence Wright (Knopf)

Poetry

●“Metaphysical Dog,” by Frank Bidart (FSG)

●“Stay, Illusion,” by Lucie Brock-Broido (Knopf)

●“The Big Smoke,” by Adrian Matejka (Penguin)

●“Black Aperture,” by Matt Rasmussen (Louisiana)

●“Incarnadine,” by Mary Szybist (Graywolf)

Young people’s literature

●“The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp,” by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum)

●“The Thing About Luck,” by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum)

●“Far Far Away,” by Tom McNeal (Knopf)

●“Picture Me Gone,” by Meg Rosoff (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

●“Boxers & Saints,” by Gene Luen Yang (First Second)

At the awards ceremony in New York next month, each winner will receive $10,000, while the other finalists will receive $1,000. As previously announced, E.L. Doctorow will receive the foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and Maya Angelou will receive the Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community.

The judges considered more than 1,400 submissions for this year’s prizes. To be eligible, a book must have been written by a U.S. citizen and published in the United States between Dec. 1, 2012, and Nov. 30, 2013.

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