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Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winners, 2019-2009: A Review

July 24, 2019

Winning a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is way better than getting a book on the bestsellers list.  At least, in my imagination, it would be.  I haven’t accomplished either, so I guess I wouldn’t know for sure, but theoretically, a Pulitzer Prize would be awesome.

First of all, a Pulitzer Prize is forever.  A book can disappear from a bestsellers list within a week, but that’s not true for a Pulitzer Prize.  Once your book wins a Pulitzer Prize, it’s there forever.  I don’t think any author has lost a Pulitzer Prize once it’s been won.  Even James Patterson hasn’t won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction yet.  He might team up with a literary fiction author to give himself a chance, but he might have to put his name in really small letters on the cover if he’s serious.

Anyway, nobody who likes literary fiction wants to read about James Patterson, so without further ado, here are recent recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction:

2019 The Overstory by Richard Powers

It’s a story about trees, but not really. It’s a story told from the point of  view of trees but not really.  It’s a bunch of stories not about trees not necessarily told from the point of view of trees, but not really.  If The Overstory hadn’t won a Pulitzer, I never would have tried reading it, but it did, so I did.  I don’t want to overdo my praise for The Overstory, but it’s better than anything James Patterson has written lately.

2018 Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Here’s a Pulitzer Prize winner with a hack title.  Less is about a guy named Arthur Less, a struggling writer for whom the narrator seems to feel contempt.  Book titles with a character’s name seem lazy to me, but this novel won a Pulitzer, so I guess I can’t judge.  Still, when it comes to Pulitzer Prizes, I expect more, not Less.

2017 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This is a great novel about the Underground Railroad, but you’d better know your history before you read it.  I feel sorry for the U.S. history student who reads The Underground Railroad and then takes a test in U.S. history class about the Underground Railroad.  The history student’s results might not be all that good.

2016  The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

When I heard The Sympathizer was the Pulitzer Prize winner for 2016, I ran out to the local book store and bought myself a copy without the “Pulitzer Prize for Fiction” label.  I don’t know why those book cover labels bother me, but they do.  Even though The Sympathizer was way better than anything James Patterson has written, I feel like the author was trying too hard to make this an important book.  That might seem like an odd criticism, and I’m not sure I can defend it now, but that’s how I felt when I read it a couple/few years ago.

2015   All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I know a lot of people who have read All the Light We Cannot See (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!!  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.  That doesn’t really spoil anything.

2010  Tinkers by Paul Harding

Here’s another polarizing Pulitzer winner.  Readers either love Tinkers or hate it.  Some critics call it poetic, and others 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

Sometimes a book title with only a character’s name can be confusing.  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.

BONUS BOOK

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.

*****

What do you think?  Would you rather write a bestselling novel or a Pulitzer Prize winner?  Which Pulitzer Prize winning novel above is your favorite?

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