Charles Johnson continued his remarkable ascent out of obscurity yesterday as his tale of a newly freed slave's journey to Africa received a National Book Critics Circle fiction nomination.

"Middle Passage," which won the National Book Award in November and has become a bestseller as a result, was joined on the short list by John Updike's "Rabbit at Rest," Wallace Stegner's "Collected Stories," Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" and Sue Miller's "Family Pictures."

While the first four nominees were selected in a relatively painless manner, it took some wrangling among the 24 members of the NBCC board to decide on the fifth book. Thomas Pynchon's "Vineland" was favored by some of those at the New York meeting, while Steven Millhauser's "The Barnum Museum" was the choice of others. Finally, Miller's story of a family with an autistic child emerged as a compromise -- a book that some liked and no one hated.

In nonfiction, political analyst Kevin Phillips's "The Politics of Rich and Poor" was the subject of the most controversy, with some board members saying it was nothing more than an overblown magazine article. Another unexpected bestseller, Shelby Steele's "The Content of Our Character," received a nomination, as did Alma Guillermoprieto's "Samba" and the late O.B. Hardison's "Disappearing Through the Skylight." The most unexpected nomination in this category was Mike Davis's "City of Quartz" -- a relatively unknown study of Los Angeles issued by the leftist publisher Verso. It scored high marks with the California board members.

The biggest surprise among the poetry nominees was a book that didn't make it -- Mark Strand's "The Continuous Life." Highly regarded by the NBCC's poetry committee, the book was looked upon less kindly by the board as a whole. The five that did succeed: Anthony Hecht's "The Transparent Man," Frank Bidart's "In the Western Night," Charles Simic's "The Book of Gods and Devils," John Haines's "Poems 1980-88" and Amy Gerstler's "Bitter Angel." At 34 the youngest and least-known of the poetry nominees, Gerstler is published by North Point Press, a highly regarded house that has announced it will close this year.

In biography/autobiography, the nominees were the second volume of Robert Caro's life of Lyndon Johnson, "Means of Ascent"; Richard Rhodes's memoir of being an abused child, "A Hole in the World"; T.H. Watkins's massive "Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold Ickes," an assessment of FDR's secretary of the interior; Patricia O'Toole's "The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends"; and John Espy's "Strong Drink, Strong Language."

For criticism, the nominees were Stanley Crouch's "Notes of a Hanging Judge," Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae," Arthur Danto's "Encounters and Reflections," Wilfrid Sheed's "Essays in Disguise" and Irving Howe's "Selected Writings."

No publisher had more than one book in any category, although Knopf scored in all five. The only trend in evidence was a slightly increased prominence for California. The two small presses with nominees, John Daniel and Story Line Press, are based there, as is North Point. On Feb. 16, the board will convene in that state -- in Claremont -- to make final decisions.