I have been on a project to read all the Pulitzer winners (and some of the runner’s ups). It has been a wonderful adventure during which I have discovered authors that I would have otherwise missed, but also with some deceptions where I disagreed more or less strongly with the decision of the Pulitzer committee.
Some of the authors I most enjoyed discovering included Annie Proulx, Donna Tartt, Richard Russo, John Updike, Richard Ford, and Marilynne Robinson. There were authors that disappointed me such as Colston Whitehead and some I detested like Anthony Doerr. Nonetheless, it was worth going through the books to see how American literature has evolved over the last 50 years.
The Pulitzer was given 47 times over the last 51 years, whereas in the years of 1971, 1974, 1977, and 2012 there was no winner. In 1971 and 2012, they apparently did not think that there was a book that stood above the others; however, I would have thought Toni Morrison’s fantastic debut, The Bluest Eye could have been an appropriate choice for 1971. In 1974 and 1977 respectively, Thomas Pynchon’s magnificent Gravity’s Rainbow and Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It were selected by the fiction jury but then rejected by the Pulitzer board who has a final decision. In 1977, they did give a special Pulitzer to Roots by Alex Haley.
Of the 47 prizes that were awarded, 30 went to men. This was a surprise as I usually thought of these prizes as being awarded primarily to men, but it was enlightening to see that a third of the prizes went to deserving women writers.
As for locations, the prize went 14 times to books that are based in New York, 7 took place in the South, 6 were collections of short stories, and 6 took place in New England, and 5 in the West. Europe and Asia were locations for 3 books each and Canada twice. I guess that if you want to win the Pulitzer, it might be a good bet to keep New York in the story somehow or at least focus on New England.
As for the time period, 24 times the period was contemporary to the author, 48 took place in the 20th/21st century, and 7 in the 19th century. Four of the books revolved around the Civil War and 3 had slavery as a theme. WWII was the background for 3 books and the Vietnam War was the background for 2 books. And there was only one novel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy was in an imaginary dystopian future.
Of the many protagonists, the ones that made the biggest impression on me were Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest, Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, Theodore Decker in The Goldfinch, Seymore “Swede” Levov in American Pastoral, Joshua Chamberlain in The Killer Angels, Sethe in Beloved, Celie in The Color Purple, Quoyle in The Shipping News, and Gus and Woodrow from The Lonesome Dove. On the other hand, the protagonists I couldn’t stand included Olive Kitteridge (eponymous), Bennie Salazar in The Good Squad, Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings, Marie-Laure and Werner in All The Light We Cannot See, Elwood Curtis in The Nickel Boys, and Henry Townsend in The Known World.
Looking back, it seems to me that the choices have become more politically correct as far more “minority” writers were chosen since 2000 (Lahiri, Díaz, Nguyen) as well as the first black male author to get two prizes (Whitehead). I thought that the tone moved from something a bit more heavy in some of the choices (Jean Stanford, John Cheever, Eudora Welty) in the 70s to some choices of books far more lighter in topic: Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie in 1985 and Less by Andrew Sean Greer in 2018 stood out as somewhat frivolous choices to me.) There were several times where I felt that the runner-up was superior to the winner (2000, 2015, 2020), but more on my disagreements below.
As for agreeing with the committee, I agreed about half the time as you see in the above graph. There were 9 books where I strongly disagreed and 13 where I was hesitant with respect to their choice. I find it interesting and am curious as to how others experienced perceive the quality of the selection. In the 70s, I think they passed over good books 3 times and gave out prize to weak novels like Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson and The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. In the 80s, I liked most of the choices (or understood them even if I didn’t like the book as was the case for Norman Mailer’s epic (but unpleasant-to-read) Executioner’s Song). In the 90s, I didn’t like Mambo Kings by Oscar Hijuelos nor did I think that The Hours by Michael Cunningham was very good but liked their other choices for the most part. In the 00s, I had a real problem with the choice of Jhumpa Lahiri’s mediocre Interpreter of Maladies over the excellent Close Range by Annie Proulx (it would have been nice to see her win a second prize), with The Known World (although I don’t have an alternative to propose other than maybe Paul Auster’s Oracle Night (not read), but I will admit with atrocities like Cosmopolis by Delillo and the abysmal excuse for literature DaVinci Code coming out in 2003, they may have had a difficult time finding something!). Lastly, for the 10s, I had the most disagreements because I found that the winners in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2018 and 2020 were weak entries in terms of character development and general quality of writing. Just looking at the most recent award in 2020, there were far stronger books considered like runner-up The Dutch House by Ann Patchett but also the sorely overlooked but excellent Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips. I wish I had an extra life to read all the runner’s up each year, but I need to go back and do all the prizes from 1918 now, so may be after that.
Here are my overall rankings. My apologies, but since I strongly feel that Gravity’s Rainbow was robbed in 1974 and that it was the best book written in the past 50 years, it gets a controversial #1 ranking in my table.
|5||A Confederacy of Dunces|
|6||The Shipping News|
|8||Rabbit at Rest|
|9||The Orphan Master’s Son|
|11||The Color Purple|
|16||The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay|
|18||The Stone Diaries|
|21||A Thousand Acres|
|22||The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao|
|24||Angle of Repose|
|25||A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain|
|26||The Optimist’s Daughter|
|27||The Killer Angels|
|29||The Stories of John Cheever|
|30||The Executioner’s Song|
|31||Rabbit Is Rich|
|34||A Summons to Memphis|
|36||The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love|
|37||A Visit From the Goon Squad|
|38||The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford|
|39||Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer|
|40||Interpreter of Maladies|
|44||The Known World|
|46||The Nickel Boys|
|47||The Underground Railroad|
|48||All the Light We Cannot See|