The National Book Awards organization has given extraordinary recognition to three virtually unknown novelists whose works -- one of them a novel that had gone unpublished for 40 years -- were among the 1990 award nominees in fiction and nonfiction announced yesterday.

Felipe Alfau, whose "Chromos" is a fiction semifinalist, is an 88-year-old native of Spain who immigrated to the United States during World War I. His avant-garde novel, set in Manhattan in the 1930s and composed in the 1940s, is said to be written in "Iberian English." Dalkey Archive Press, also not widely known, is his publisher.

Two other nominees are first novelists, and also immigrants. Elena Castedo, who was born in Chile, is the author of "Paradise" (Grove Weidenfeld), a novel about a Latin American ghetto family. Jessica Hagedorn's "Dogeaters" (Pantheon) is set in the Philippines, where the author was born.

The remaining fiction contenders are established novelists and teachers of writing: Joyce Carol Oates, for "Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart" (Dutton/Abrahams), and Charles Johnson, for "Middle Passage" (Atheneum). Both books, it happens, deal with matters of race -- in a Detroit neighborhood 30 years ago, and on a slave clipper bound for Africa 150 years ago, respectively.

The nonfiction nominees constitute less of a departure, but a broad range of topics and forms nonetheless -- including a book of decided interest in Washington: "Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952" (Henry Holt), a biography of the New Deal architect and interior secretary by T.H. Watkins of the Wilderness Society here.

The nonfiction list also includes Roger Morris's "Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician" (Henry Holt), Ron Chernow's "The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance" (Atlantic Monthly Press/Entrekin), Samuel G. Freedman's "Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students and Their High School" (Harper & Row), Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith's "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga" (Clarkson N. Potter).

The two winners will be announced at ceremonies in New York on Nov. 27 marking the 40th year of the National Book Awards, and they will receive, in addition to checks for $10,000, newly commissioned sculptures by Joel Shapiro. The Louise Nevelson plaques they replace were retired not long after her death. Shapiro's creation, according to awards director Neil Baldwin, is composed of two joined rectangular solids, one representing a human and the other a book, standing seven inches tall and made of "patinated" bronze.

The judges who selected these 10 nominees from a record submission of 375 books, and who will do the final winnowing, are Catharine R. Stimpson, William H. Gass, Phillip Lopate, Terry McMillan and Paul West, for fiction; and Ronald Steel, Patricia Bosworth, William Leuchtenburg, Jaroslav Pelikan and Maureen Quilligan, for nonfiction.