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Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2016-2006: A Review

April 20, 2016
If you're going to buy this book, get it soon (before Pulitzer puts its name all over the cover.

If you’re going to buy this book, get it soon (before Pulitzer puts its name all over the cover).

Whenever a new Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner is announced, it’s a good idea to go out and buy a copy of the book right away.  In a few weeks, the only available copies will have a giant ribbon/blurb on the cover that announces that the book is a Pulitzer Prize winner. After that, it’s tough to find a Pulitzer Prize winning book without the Pulitzer Prize on it.  You might have to go to some used book stores.  But it’s worth it.

I don’t blame the book publishers for putting the Pulitzer announcement on the book covers.  The Pulitzer Prize adds a lot of prestige to a book. But I like having novels without the Prize on the cover.  I like to read books before they win awards or are turned into movies.  And if I haven’t read them, then I like to pretend that I have.

Here are recent recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  It might be tough to find copies without the Pulitzer on the cover, but it’s probably still possible:

2016  The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

As soon as I heard that The Sympathizer had won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I ran out to the local B&M Bookseller to purchase a copy.  I might not ever read The Sympathizer, but I can always brag that I read the book before it won the Pulitzer.  After all, I have a copy that was printed before the Pulitzer announcement had been made.  I can say I was ahead of the times.  I was the trend setter.  Yeah, I run the risk of looking like a book snob (and maybe a liar), but people respect book snobs.

2015   All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I write about this book a lot because it’s always on the best sellers lists when I do my monthly review.  I haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See, but I know a lot of people who have (or claimed to have read it), and nobody I know despises this book.  Usually a Pulitzer brings about a ton of extra criticism, but I haven’t seen any post-Pulitzer backlash for this like I’ve seen from other winners (especially The Goldfinch and A Visit from the Goon Squad).

If a book can be a long-term bestseller AND a Pulitzer Prize winner and NOT get post-award backlash, then that book must be AWESOME (except saying it’s AWESOME would be setting expectations too high and cause more undeserved backlash).

2014  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This is what I’m talking about, a polarizing Pulitzer Prize winner that’s been a bestseller for a long time.  A lot of readers love it, and a lot of readers hate it.  Readers complain that it’s too long, too slow, and has sections that don’t make sense or contribute to the story.  Others say the book is brilliant.  Being “brilliant” implies that that readers who complain about the book just don’t get it.  Readers who complain about it might say they “get” it but it’s not as brilliant as readers who love it say it is.

I haven’t read it.  By my standards, it’s pretty long.

2013  The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

North Korea is a rare setting for a novel, and the author uses a bunch of literary devices to describe all the horrible stuff going on there, so it’s more than just a laundry list of human rights abuses.  I don’t like reading about human rights abuses, even when I know they’re fictional.

In The Orphan Master’s Son, the orphan master treats his son more harshly than the orphans in his care.  That’s how it goes.  When I was growing up, a friend of mine’s mom was a teacher, and one year he had to be in his mom’s class for the whole year, and he was miserable because she was always on his case.  I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as being an orphan master’s son in North Korea, but still.

2012  No Award

I respect an award where there isn’t always a winner (or recipient).  There shouldn’t always be a winner just because there’s an award available.  There should be standards, by God!!  If no novel written in 2012 meets those standards, then so be it.  I wish the Heisman Trophy (for college football) had a No Award option.

2011  A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

As a writer, you can’t go wrong with a metaphor as a title.  As a reader, I can get confused with metaphors because I’m kind of literal.  When I read A Visit from the Goon Squad, I was expecting an actual goon squad.  I like books with goon squads.  I don’t like goon squads in real life because they’re dangerous, but I like goon squads in literature because they make books interesting.  Just so you know, there are no real goon squads in A Visit from the Goon Squad.  I hope that doesn’t spoil anything.

2010  Tinkers by Paul Harding

Here’s another polarizing Pulitzer winner.  Readers either love it or hate it.  Some critics call it poetic, and other say the author tried too hard.  I know what those critics mean.  In this novel an old man is on his death bed thinking about his life with his family around him.  It seems like a common idea.

I’ve read books and seen movies with that concept, but Tinkers uses a lot of metaphors regarding clocks and time. Some critics say the author tried too hard to make this book deep, but Tinkers won a Pulitzer, so who cares?  If I’m the author and I’ve won a Pulitzer, I don’t care if critics say I tried too hard.  Trying too hard shows you care.  It’s better than not trying hard enough.

2009  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

When a book title is a character’s name, I sometimes get confused.  Did Elizabeth Strout write Olive Kitteridge?  Or did Olive Kitteridge write Elizabeth Strout?  Elizabeth Strout would have been a cool fictional name, and Olive Kitteridge would be a cool author’s name.  At least when Jane Austen wrote Emma, she didn’t give Emma a last name.  If Emma had been given a last name, I might have gotten Jane and Emma confused too.

2008  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao  by Junot Diaz

This is the opposite of Olive Kitteridge.  Take a character’s name and add a bunch of adjectives to it.  Plus, there are tons of pop cultural references in this book.  I wonder how it will hold up 20, 50, even 100 years from now.  When somebody reads The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2108, will readers be turned off by all the references that are no longer in the cultural lexicon?  That’s the thing about being a Pulitzer Prize winner; it’s forever.  At least, it’s forever as long as people still read books.

2007  The Road by Cormac McCarthy

It’s short.  It’s about the post-apocalypse.  The characters have no names.  It’s kind of depressing.  But after you read it, you can brag that you’ve read yet another Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

A post-Apocalyptic Pulitzer Prize winner?  You’d think I’d have more to say about it.

2006  March by Geraldine Brooks

I had never heard of this novel until I started researching for this blog post.  I don’t know if that’s a reflection of my ignorance or a reflection of this prize winner’s obscurity.  I initially didn’t know if March was referring to the month or a verb.   If it was about a march during March, that would make March a clever title.  I was disappointed to find out that March was the protagonist’s name.  Ugh.

Then I found out that the protagonist is the absentee father from Little Women.  I know Little Women is public domain and today’s authors can do what they want without permission, but I was surprised that the Pulitzer committee would consider a novel based on a classic.  It almost seems like cheating, but I guess Pulitzer disagrees.

*****

What do you think?  Which Pulitzer Prize winning novel have you read?  Which one are you most likely to read?  Does winning a prestigious award even matter to you?  Which award means more to you than the Pulitzer?

*****

I wrote a story.  I read it in front of my class.  And then a bunch of weird stuff happened (but I didn’t win a Pulitzer).

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8 Comments
  1. I’m not the Orphan Master I’m the Orphan Master’s son. I only master orphans till the Orphan Master comes.

  2. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. I’m not particular interested in reading one and not especially upset that I haven’t, although I’m fully aware, that people will judge me based on my having not read award winning fiction. I decided a long time ago, that this is my head, not theirs, and I’m the one who gets to decide what goes in it. (Apparently I have a brain that’s not particular interested in improving itself.)

    I do care about awards for writing, if I’m the one who is winning them, though.

  3. I read Tinkers today for the very first time, and it DID cross my mind that it was trying too hard. However, it is the type of book that I would enjoy reading time and time again BECAUSE of its complexity. The more complex a book is, the more you appreciate it with each successive read. As long as the metaphors and poeticism makes sense, I don’t mind.

  4. I feel the same way about price stickers on my books, and some can be particularly nasty to get off, leaving a thin film of dirt-attracting glue on the cover. Bastards…

    Anyway, I’ve read the Road and A Visit from the Goon Squad. Very different books, but I enjoyed them both. The Road is really short and sparse with not a wasted word anywhere, and seems like the kind of book that wins awards. The Goon Squad was a bit all over the place, but interesting nonetheless. Didn’t realise they were Pulitzer Prize winners, although the Road is more that kind of ‘literature’.

    The thing I don’t get is, the classics were shamelessly for the masses in their day. Why did someone along the way decide ‘proper’ award-worthy literature must be different?

    • In that case I have read Pulitzer winning fiction as I read The Road, along with a couple other Cormac books. I am pretty sure that isn’t the reason I read it though.

  5. Possibly the only Pulitzer in this list that I truly consider a masterpiece is “The Road” by McCarthy. Maybe (but already on a totally lower level) the Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao.

    The PEN award is better, but seriously, literature as a whole is approaching a time of change. New media are emerging (and I’m not talking about the trite TV, or the already old YouTube self-creation).

    Videogame writers have more fantasy than TV Shows writers, and they get to play with stories like no one else did. Virtual Reality is almost here, already in the hands of the hardcore gamers. Why Facebook bought the most prominent VR company? because VR is a world where we’ll enter willingly and share all of our data.

    In 5/10 years, it’s all gonna be about experiences; and the crafter of those experiences will be the new writers.

  6. I only read Olive Kitteridge, so I’m only mildly driven by prizes. The Goldfinch and All The Light We Cannot See are still on my list.

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