I recently met the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction, Richard Russo (I went to a reading he did at a local university and asked him a craft question and got a book signed), and it got me thinking about who wins Pulitzer Prizes for fiction and why.
As a writer, I’ve read a lot of prize winners, not only because I write fiction but because I love reading great books. I read Pulitzer winners, National Book Award winners, Booker winners . . . you get the point. So, I pulled up the list of the last 21 Pulitzer winners in fiction (although none was awarded in 2012) to get a better sense of the works of fiction that caught the judges’ attention. No book in 2012 received the majority of the judges’ votes, though Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, the late Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and the late David Foster Wallace’s Pale King were all up for contention. (I’ve met two of the authors, and while lovely people, I don’t disagree with the judges’ decision that year). The Pulitzer has not been awarded 11 times in its history. And this year, 2023, there were two winners, Barbara Kingsolver and Hernan Diaz, the first time two writers have won the prize in its 105-year history.
Here are the last 20 Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction:
2023 - Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper), and Trust, by Hernan Diaz
2022 - The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in
the History of a Very Famous Family, by Joshua Cohen (New York Review Books)
2021 - The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich (Harper)
2020 - The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
2019 - The Overstory, by Richard Powers (W.W. Norton)
2018 - Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown and Company)
2017 - The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
2016 - The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press)
2015 - All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)
2014 - The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown)
2013 - The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson (Random House)
2012 – No award given
2011 - A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (Alfred A.. Knopf)
2010 - Tinkers, by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press)
2009 - Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
2008 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books)
2007 - The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf)
2006 - March, by Geraldine Brooks (Viking)
2005 - Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar)
2004 - The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (Amistad/ HarperCollins)
2003 - Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar)
2002 - Empire Falls, by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf)
As the question of the gender of winners has become an issue in certain circles, I figured I’d throw the numbers in, just as an FYI.
Female Winners: 7
Male Winners: 14
I won’t get into further than that in terms of demographics—though I know there are plenty of writers and readers out there who find specific demographic information about these authors “telling,” in terms of who wins. I’ll leave it at that. My take is neutral; as a writer, I want to believe that demographics don’t play into the judges’ decisions. I want the best book to win, however subjective the designation of “best” may be. I may disagree with the selection, but I’m not on the panel, and I’m sure they have a very, very difficult time deciding who should win such a prestigious (and life-changing) prize.
Regarding the list above, I’ve read eleven of the winning novels. The other nine I have sitting on bookshelves somewhere. I’ve picked up Robinson’s Gilead probably ten times. Couldn’t get past the first chapter. Same with Tartt’s Goldfinch. I read about ninety percent of Powers’s The Overstory, and same thing—I put it down and, well, it’s just not for me. I tried. Really, I did. I just couldn’t do it. Harding’s Tinkers baffled me. It’s 208 pages long, but a very short 208 pages. I think I read it in a day, and completely missed its genius. I’m still not sure why it won, though I did feel something haunting as I read it.
This past weekend, I finished Trust, by Hernan Diaz. I thoroughly enjoyed it; it was a smart novel. It felt a little like Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, though I’m sure there are a few examples out there that people smarter and more well read than I am could point out as being more closely aligned in terms of style and subject matter. Last year, or the year before, I read Greer’s Less. I thought the novel was genius. The last line of that novel has stuck with me to this day. It was just a hell of a fun read all around, and I absolutely understand why it won. That book is a flame burning brightly on the bowing, overcrowded bookshelves around my house.
Winning The Pulitzer Prize. Who Decides, and Are They Right?
The who, I don’t know. But it’s a three-member jury administered and appointed by Columbia University. The Pulitzer Prize organization describes the entries as “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” Fair enough, even with the clever escape hatch, i.e., the inclusion of the word “preferably.” Jurors read hundreds of books over about a year or so, and then select three to recommend to the Pulitzer board. The board decides whether it agrees, and if a majority selects a book, the book wins. The board can override the jury’s decision if it chooses.
This year there were two winners. Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, and Hernan Diaz’s Trust. I haven’t yet read Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, but I have yet to hear a negative word about it. Here’s the Pulitzer’s description of Copperhead: “A masterful recasting of ‘David Copperfield,’ narrated by an Appalachian boy whose wise, unwavering voice relates his encounters with poverty, addiction, institutional failures and moral collapse–and his efforts to conquer them.” If that isn’t dealing with contemporary American life, I don’t know what is. And here's the one for Diaz’s Trust: “A riveting novel set in a bygone America that explores family, wealth and ambition through linked narratives rendered in different literary styles, a complex examination of love and power in a country where capitalism is king.”
As I mentioned, I enjoyed Trust, but I don’t know if it should have won a Pulitzer. I had the same issue with Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a great read. Apparently, it’s also a great drama series as well. But Pulitzer caliber? I didn’t think that when I read it, nor do I think so today. Again, I loved the book. Don’t hate me, Mr. Doerr. I know you’re enjoying your life in Paris, sitting on stacks of Cloud Cuckoo Land (also on my bookshelf) that reach the ceiling. I wish you much success. There was just something lacking there for me in terms of the novel being literary fiction that might merit such an award.
When I was writing my novel, The Losses, I kept Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge next to my laptop. There was a certain something about that novel, or story cycle (it’s 13 interrelated stories), that kicked something alive within me that allowed me to write a novel in six months, that, miraculously, needed little editing prior to publication. I’ve read other novels that have inspired me in one way or another, but for some reason Kitteridge took over my creative juices and helped me produce something I’m extremely grateful for. I guess that’s what certain novels do for certain people, and I hope that’s what the novels that win the Pulitzer (and other prizes) do for the judges (and eventually readers) who read them. But again, the enjoyment of one novel over another is subjective. The only real question I have about the Pulitzer Prize selections is this: How, with all the fiction that’s published every year, did the judges not select at least one book those eleven times? That’s crazy to me. But again, what do I know? Apparently, when it comes to selecting Pulitzer Prize winners, not all that much.
Cully Perlman is a writer and editor. If you’ve completed a novel and would like to discuss editing it, you can reach him at Cully@novelmasterclass.com
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