The National Book Awards unveiled the finalists for this year's prizes on Wednesday in Savannah.
South Carolina writer Pat Conroy read the names of the 20 finalists in the small living room at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home on historic LaFayette Square.
O'Connor, who grew up in Savannah but who lived most of her short life near Milledgeville, won the award posthumously in 1972.
She was the only writer to win the award after her death.
An online poll recently conducted by the National Book Foundation voted her collection of short stories the award's best in its 61 year history.
Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation says, the award is like an Oscar for books.
"It's always a good thing, but for a young writer, on a first or second book, it's an extraordinary experience because it's a validation of what your choice has been," Augenbraum says.
The award carries a $1,000 cash prize for being nominated and a $10,000 cash prize for winning.
And that's just the start of the benefits, financial and otherwise, that come from the prestigious nomination, which Conroy calls a "life-changing event."
"It's all downhill from here," says Conroy, who twice won the Man Booker Prize.
The foundation started announcing the award nominations outside of its New York City home base several years ago in a bid to recognize literary masters.
"Flannery O'Connor is a wonderful American writer and we like to be part of the tradition of great American writing," Augenbraum says.
Early headlines from the latest nominations are focusing on what critics are calling a snub.
Jonathan Franzen's highly-praised novel, "Freedom," was not chosen a finalist.
In the non-fiction category, two nominated writers, Barbara Demick and Megan Stack, both work in the same office.
They both are based at the Beijing bureau for the L.A. Times.
Winners will be honored next month in New York City.
Here is the complete list of nominations:
Peter Carey, "Parrot and Olivier in America"
Jaimy Gordon,"Lord of Misrule"
Nicole Krauss, "Great House"
Lionel Shriver, "So Much for That"
Karen Tei Yamashita, "I Hotel"
Barbara Demick, "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea"
John W. Dower, "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq"
Patti Smith, "Just Kids"
Justin Spring, "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward"
Megan K. Stack, "Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War"
Kathleen Graber, "The Eternal City"
Terrance Hayes, "Lighthead"
James Richardson, "By the Numbers"
C.D. Wright, "One with Others"
Monica Youn, "Ignatz"
Young People’s Literature:
Paolo Bacigalupi, "Ship Breaker"
Kathryn Erskine, "Mockingbird"
Laura McNeal, "Dark Water"
Walter Dean Myers, "Lockdown"
Rita Williams-Garcia, "One Crazy Summer"