The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is the oldest and perhaps most distinguished literary award in the United States. Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck all won it, as did Morrison, Updike and Roth. But how distinguished is it, really? How many of these books are still studied? How many of them are even still read? How well do they stack up over time?
A quick comparison. When the Modern Library did their list of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century, only 7 of them had won the Pulitzer. By contrast, 6 of them had won the National Book Award, which is 30 years younger. None of those overlap, as only two post-1950 Pulitzer winners were on the list and neither won the NBA. Only 5 Pulitzer winners have won the NBA. Of course, the major book awards don’t like to copy each other – only twice has a Pulitzer winner also won the PEN/Faulkner award. But the Pulitzer Prize is supposed to be the award, the one that truly lasts. Well, now that I’m finally done reading the list of all the Pulitzers, I just wanted to a quick look back and see how well that list actually stands up to the test of time.
A quick note on the year listed here – Pulitzer Prizes are given out in April for books from the previous year. So these are not the publication dates – they are the Pulitzer date.
Another quick note on the grades that I list after each winner. The grade is passed on two things. The first is the quality of the choice itself. The second is based on the quality of the eligible contenders. In that case, a mediocre book in a great year can be worse than a poor choice in a very weak year.
The Pulitzer Prize for the Novel:
The original award was given out to a novel, so in discussing each year, I’ll only focus on novels rather than short story collections.
1918 – His Family by Ernest Poole
The first award began with a dud. This is one of a number of Pulitzer winners that doesn’t stand out in my head in the slightest. They all blend together in one big book. But I can’t argue with the choice too much because I don’t have any other options. I can’t name a single novel to choose over it. The only novel from that year I think I’ve even read besides the winner is Summer by Edith Wharton, which I hated.
1919 – The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
This one they got right. It’s a great book (made into a brilliant film by Orson Welles), even making it in the final spot on the Modern Library list.
1920 – no award given
Unlike certain other years where we know a certain book was lined up to win and then overruled by the Board, we don’t have any information on this year. Certainly they could have and should have picked Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, #24 on the Modern Library list (and by coincidence, on mine as well). Though this is mere conjecture, it’s possible they were thinking of picking The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham and decided not to.
1921 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
This really was the best choice. It made #58 on the Modern Library list and was on my 20th Century list. But there was no shortage of books to pick from, as this year also saw the release of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut, This Side of Paradise.
1922 – Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington
Tarkington becomes the first repeat winner (there wouldn’t be another until Faulkner won his second posthumously). I can’t really argue with the choice. It is a good book, made into a good film with Katharine Hepburn. And there isn’t much else out there (because this is still the prize for the novel, Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers isn’t eligible).
1923 – One of Ours by Willa Cather
I’ll be honest. I hate Cather’s books. The only one I even moderately like is The Professor’s House. And to pick this, they not only passed up Fitzgerald again (he never did win), but also Sinclair Lewis’ brilliant Babbitt.
1924 – The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson
Yet another book I can’t remember a thing about. So many of these early winners just blend together, all the ones I’ve read in the past few years. I’m quite limited on 1923 and have to choose Cane by Jean Toomer as the best of the few I have read.
1925 – So Big by Edna Ferber
I don’t think much of any of Ferber’s books. This is another year where I am limited, but it was the year that Billy Budd was finally published, so I would say that should have been the winner.
1926 – Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (declined)
Lewis did win for Arrowsmith, the weakest of his major novels. It is a good book, though, and would be a good choice, except for one major problem. Even if you want to overlook Maugham’s The Painted Veil, Ford’s No More Parades and Dresier’s American Tragedy, it still leaves you with The Great Gatsby. And there’s no getting around that.
1927 – Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield
This is even worse. At least Arrowsmith was a good book by a very good novelist. This one is so completely unknown that it has a two sentence description on Wikipedia. And, oh yeah, it won over The Sun Also Rises.
1928 – The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
A very good book (#37 on the Modern Library list), though I am not certain whether or not I would go with it or Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis.
1929 – Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin
This is another of those terrible choices that I can’t find anything to replace it with. On the international front we had Orlando, All Quiet on the Western Front, Steppenwolf, Decline and Fall, Point Counter Point and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I would have to go with Quicksand by Nella Larsen, though it isn’t nearly as good as Passing. But the only other American novels from that year I’ve even read are The Trumpeter of Krakow (the Newberry winner) and Hunting for Hidden Gold and The Shore Road Mystery (both Hardy Boys books).
1930 – Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge
The single worst choice, only partially because it’s a relentlessly mediocre book. But to pick it, they had to pass up the following novels: Passing by Nella Larsen, Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Any of those books would have been classic choices. The Hemingway novel is on the Modern Library list, Dodsworth prompted Lewis’ Nobel Prize for Literature win (the first win by an American) and The Sound and the Fury is the greatest novel ever written, of course.
1931 – Years of Grace by Margaret Barnes
This was one of the most recent books that I read and I spent most of the time thinking, “This seriously won the Pulitzer prize over As I Lay Dying? And The 42nd Parallel? And The Maltese Falcon?”
1932 – The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
The Good Earth is generally considered a classic and the film version from 1937 was nominated for Best Picture. Both of them are actually pretty boring and while Buck definitely had a good feel for China, most of her writings aren’t really worth going back to. On the other hand, Faulkner, for the third year in a row wrote a classic that was ignored, this time Sanctuary.
1933 – The Store by Thomas Stribling
This was it, the last book on the list (at least until April 12). And how was it? Spectacularly not worthy. It wouldn’t have been worthy in any year. But it deals with race relations in the South in the years after the Civil War and it came out the same year as Faulkner’s Light in August. So we could go with a mostly forgotten book by a pretty much forgotten writer, or one of the triumphs of the great American novelist.
1934 – The Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller
Not a bad book. But really not worth remembering. I’m a little surprised they didn’t go with Lost Horizon, which seems like Pulitzer material. They could have expanded their horizons and gone with The Thin Man, but pulp detective fiction is way out of their comfort zone. There was also God’s Little Acre. It wasn’t the best year for literature.
1935 – Now in November by Josephine Johnson
A short harmless little book. But Pulitzer Prize material? In the same year as Tender is the Night? What was it about the Pulitzer Board that they could not get their head around Fitzgerald? There was also John O’Hara’s masterpiece: Appointment in Samarra. Or James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. That’s three from the Modern Library list (a fourth as well with Tropic of Cancer, but I would never suggest it as I hate it). And the Pulitzer Board went with a book that is almost completely forgotten today. In fact, when adding in I, Claudius and A Handful of Dust, which as British novels, wouldn’t have been eligible, this year has more slots on the Modern Library list than any other year, with 5 of those 6 books making the top 50, which makes the Pulitzer’s award all the more embarrassing. And that’s without even mentioning Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep.
1936 – Honey in the Horn by Harold Lenor Davis
1935 wasn’t exactly a watershed year for American literature but Honey in the Horn isn’t exactly a watershed book. There was Faulkner’s Pylon or Judgment Day, the finale of the Studs Lonigan Trilogy. Or Tortilla Flat, but it’s weak Steinbeck. It was just that kind of year.
1937 – Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Gone with the Wind seemed an inevitable winner, a runaway best seller that many people absolutely loved. It was the same with the film three years later at the Oscars. But for the film to win meant that The Wizard of Oz, the truly best film of the year, didn’t. And for the book to win means that Absalom Absalom, one of the greatest novels ever written, one with so much more insight to the Southern way of life, didn’t.
1938 – The Late George Apley by John Phillips Marquand
This is one of the better early Pulitzer choices. At least it’s a book that is still remembered somewhat. Although, this was the same year as Of Mice and Men, and that is a book that is absolutely loved and with good reason. There are also a lot of people who would make the argument for Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’m not one of them, but there are a lot of them.
1939 – The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Yearling is an enjoyable book, but it’s really a kids book, more appropriate for the Newbury Award than the Pulitzer. The Board could have been daring and awarded the complete U.S.A. Trilogy, as it was published in a single whole in this year. There really weren’t a whole lot of good other options.
1940 – The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This is the first time that the Board got it right, hands down. While there were other great books from that same year (Johnny Got His Gun, The Big Sleep), there is no question that this was the right choice. It not only is a monumental work of fiction, but it so perfectly captures the American story at that point in history. For an award to an American writer, preferably dealing with American life, there are few awards in its history that match up to this one.
1941 – no award
Grade: D (for not choosing when they could have)
The jury actually decided on For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. The Board even agreed. But the president of Columbia University, who oversees the Pulitzer Prizes, talked the Board out of it because he considered it offensive. This is one of the lowest moments in Pulitzer history, because while Native Son was the best book of the year, Bell would have been an excellent choice, far better than almost all of the choices up until this point and it meant that Hemingway would have to wait 12 more years and finally win a Pulitzer for what even the Pulitzer official site calls a lesser work.
1942 – In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow
Another choice that I read and can’t for the life of me remember anything about. It’s a very weak year in American fiction and the only thing I can possibly recommend as a winner is The Last Tycoon by Fitzgerald.
1943 – Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair
This wasn’t a bad choice, but by this time, Sinclair was focused too much on his politics and it spilled over into his writing. Definitely the best book of the year is Go Down Moses, which I consider a novel, but the original printing of it as Go Down Moses and Other Stories might have kept Faulkner from winning his first Pulitzer.
1944 – Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin
I look at some of these books and wonder if anyone but me has read them in years. Some of the copies I read literally hadn’t been checked out of the library in decades. But there isn’t much else to go with. I’m inclined to favor A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. By this point, Fitzgerald and Wolfe were dead, Faulkner was drinking himself to waste in Hollywood, Steinbeck was working as a war correspondent and Hemingway was hunting German submarines.
1945 – A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
Hersey’s book is a fairly solid work and was about the war, so it was quite timely (the war was just winding down when the prize was announced). It would be overshadowed later by his book, Hiroshima. Its closest competitor was probably Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, though I have never been partial to Maugham myself. I prefer Saul Bellow’s debut, Dangling Man.
1946 – no award
I haven’t read anything about why there was no award given for 1945. Perhaps with Animal Farm and Brideshead Revisited coming out of Britain and Cannery Row the best anyone could do in the States, they just couldn’t bring themselves to give an award out. It does say that if the Board finds no work worthy that no award shall be given.
1947 – All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
This is another one of those cases where the Pulitzer Prize gets it right. While I might not think as highly of it as the Modern Library (they placed it at #36), I still think it is a great novel, better, even than the Best Picture winning film that was made from it three years later.
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Up until this point, the award had been for a Novel. So that discounted great short story collections from the major writers of the era, including Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe. Certainly of all of those, it is the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, eligible for the 1939 award (won by The Yearling) that is the most towering achievement. This was the great era of American short stories and it’s too bad that none of those great collections were eligible. Not that, given the track record during the era, any of them would necessarily have won anyway.
1948 – Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener
I’m stuck, because on the one hand, looking at books released in 1947, I can’t really find anything that stands out. On the other hand, to have Tales of the South Pacific as the highest achievement in American literature in the same year that new works come out from Camus, Nabokov, Mann, Calvino, Lowry and Waugh is a pretty sad thing to say about American literature. It is ostensibly a novel because of the connecting aspect, but really this is the first short story collection to win.
1949 – Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens
To give the award to James Gould Cozzens for his decent book about World War II, Guard of Honor, seems rather stupid, given the tremendous work about World War II that also came out the same year — The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. This book would put Mailer on the map of American literature for the rest of his life while Cozzens has been completely forgotten.
1950 – The Way West by A.B. Guthrie
Really, a pretty weak winner, even in a weak year. Certainly the most towering work in American literature from the year is The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. I myself am partial, to Knight’s Gambit, the wonderful collection of detective stories by William Faulkner. But that’s just me. This same year the initial National Book Award went to The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren.
1951 – The Town by Conrad Richter
The Town was the third in a trilogy by Conrad Richter, as opposed to Faulkner’s The Town, which was the second in a trilogy and didn’t come out until 1957. While Richter was winning the Pulitzer, Faulkner himself was winning the second National Book Award for his Collected Stories, a monumental work of short fiction which far more deserved the Pulitzer than Richter’s novel did. By this point, Faulkner had already become only the third American novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and he still had not won a Pulitzer. No other American novelist won the Nobel Prize before winning the Pulitzer (Bellow won both the same year).
1952 – The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
This is a very good book and would be a good choice. Except, this is the year of Catcher in the Rye. And this is also the year of From Here to Eternity, which won the National Book Award. This was the first of a stretch of three straight years of NBA winners that ended up on the Modern Library list.
1953 – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
I’m a bit torn. On the one hand, this is a ridiculously over-rated book, winning Hemingway the Pulitzer and being cited in his Nobel Prize. On the other hand, the NBA went to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and I’ve always thought that book was also ridiculously over-rated. We do have the release of Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, but there’s no way a pseudo-science fiction book ever would have won. But they could have made Steinbeck the second person to win twice for East of Eden, another novel that quite well captures the American spirit.
1954 – no award
I haven’t read anything about the Pulitzer decision for this year, but they must have thought that no book was worthy, in spite of the release of National Book Award winner (and future #81 on the Modern Library list), The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Or Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, which has already appeared on my top 100 (and was #39 on the ML list).
1955 – A Fable by William Faulkner
William Faulkner finally wins the Pulitzer, six years after he wins the Nobel Prize. His novel, A Fable, becomes the first, and until 1965, the only book to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and is my top work of American fiction of the year. Ironically, I think it’s one of his weaker books.
1956 – Andersonville by Mackinlay Kantor
I read Andersonville when I first started working at Powell’s back in 2000 and thought I should start reading some award winners, as I was just finishing the Modern Library list. I was excited to read Andersonville, as I had read about the infamous camp and had been impressed with just about all the Pulitzer winning books I had read up until that point. I was sorely disappointed. It’s too long, too disjointed, too much to slog through. It might have lead to the ten years it took for me to finally finish up the rest of the winners. (I will also say here, since I said it was too long, that length is relative. A book is only as long as it feels. The Brothers Karamazov is not one word too long. Many 200 page novels are way too long.)
1957 – no award
The jury recommended The Voice at the Back Door by Elizabeth Spencer, which I have actually never read, but the Board decided not to give it the award. Certainly my choice would be Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. The NBA went to Field of Vision by Wright Morris, another book I read at some point, but can’t remember. Never a good sign.
1958 – A Death in the Family by James Agee
This was a stretch where the Pulitzer often went to books that were good, fairly well written, but not classics and definitely not difficult to read. They were kind of the anti-Bookers, as Booker Prize winners are often extremely difficult to read. A Death in the Family establishes the trend (or continues it I should say from The Old Man and the Sea) that would also include To Kill A Mockingbird, The Optimist’s Daughter and The Killer Angels. On the other hand, the NBA went to The Wapshot Chronicle (which made the ML list) and my own choice would be The Town by William Faulkner. But this wasn’t a bad choice by any means.
1959 – The Travels of Jaimie Mcpheeteers by Robert Lewis Taylor
I normally take to books about California, given that I was raised there, but I found this book rather dull. Definitely the NBA made a better choice with The Magic Barrel, the short story collection by Bernard Malamud
1960 – Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
The jury actually recommended giving the award to Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, a great choice (not that Advise and Consent is a bad choice, but it’s not on the same level as the Bellow), but I would personally go with Goodbye Columbus, the debut short story collection from Philip Roth which won the National Book Award. (I have seen that actual award — it is hanging in the offices of Houghton Mifflin in Boston.)
1961 – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This was my first experience with the concept of the levels of literature. When I planned to write about it for an A.P. paper, I was discouraged with the suggestion that it wasn’t taken seriously at the college level. It was a true statement. It is not great literature. But it is great storytelling. It deserved to win the Pulitzer (the only other book that really even comes close that year is Rabbit, Run), deserves all of its acclaim and deserves to be read by everyone. But that’s not the same as considering it great literature. Perhaps this is what is so good about the Pulitzer, as opposed to some of the other awards. I can’t imagine a book like this winning the NBA or the Booker.
1962 – Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor
This is better than The Moviegoer (winner of the NBA), Catch-22, Franny and Zoey and Revolutionary Road? Really? I can’t imagine that anyone other than the people on the Pulitzer Board think this. And they probably don’t even think it. They probably wish they could go back and change their vote. This is one of those years that just comes back to haunt them. I’m gonna go ahead and say that Catch-22 is the single best novel eligible for the Pulitzer written since World War II. And the Modern Library, based on the rankings on their list, agrees with me.
1963 – The Reivers by William Faulkner
This kills me, but I have to disagree. Faulkner had just died and so maybe that’s why they decided to make him only the second person to win this award twice. It is an enjoyable book, easier to read than most of Faulkner (as opposed to A Fable, which is one of his most difficult books), a comic romp, but it’s not one of his major works. And I would go with Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. The NBA went to Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers, but it’s one of the few NBA winners I still haven’t read. Other novels I would have gone with this year over The Reivers are Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
1964 – no award
Again, I know of no explanation about the absence of a winner for this year. The NBA went to The Centaur by John Updike, a good choice. I would go with Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut. Many people would argue for V by Thomas Pynchon (which I think is over-rated) or The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (which I think is extremely over-rated).
1965 – Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
This is one of those books where the seriousness of the subject matter seemed to cover the fact that it really wasn’t very interesting. Certainly the NBA made a better choice with Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Would Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast have been eligible? Because it’s the best of his posthumous books and certainly would have been a better choice.
1966 – The Collected Stories of Katharine Anne Porter
For only the second time, the Pulitzer agrees with the National Book Award, but I don’t agree with either, as I have never been much of a fan of Katharine Ann Porter. This is the year of Vonnegut’s off-beat God Bless You Mr. Rosewater and also the year of Dune, one of the great science fiction novels of all-time.
1967 – The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
The Fixer is a very good choice, the best of Malamud’s books and and the NBA agreed. It’s the only case of back to back years where the awards went to the same book and in fact it has only happened twice more since. Perhaps they could have gone with In Cold Blood, seeing as how they would later give the award to Executioner’s Song. But my choice is The Crying of Lot 49.
1968 – The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
The NBA went to The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder, but this time I think the Pulitzer Board got it right. This is the best American work of fiction of the year.
1969 – House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
This is rather a surprise winner and helped spark a surge in Native American literature (leading to the great Louise Erdrich who still has never won a Pulitzer). But it’s an odd choice (and one of the shortest, at less than 200 pages). They could have been daring and chosen Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I’m a bit surprised they didn’t go with Updike’s Couples, a great book that was a huge success and very timely. The NBA went to Jerzy Kozinski’s Steps, which I think might just have been them saying, look at how advanced we are.
1970 – The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
One of those choices that is remembered less for any perceived literary merit (it’s an okay book), but because it was chosen over Joyce Carol Oates’ Them (NBA winner), Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It’s just one of those choices that makes the Pulitzer Board look like that they don’t have any concept of great literature.
1971 – no award
Supposedly, three books were put forth: Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow (which won the NBA), Losing Battles by Eudora Welty and The Wheel of Love by Joyce Carol Oates. The Board rejected all three and no award was given. Ironically, both Welty and Bellow would win the award over the next few years. And of course it means the Committee overlooked Deliverance by James Dickey and Toni Morrison’s debut, The Bluest Eye.
1972 – Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
This award is backed up by the Modern Library who put it at #82 for the century, but the NBA made a better choice with The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor and the real literary standouts of the year were Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson (far too outrageous a choice for the Pulitzers to ever make) and Rabbit, Redux by John Updike.
1973 – The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
The Pulitzers again went with a book that was easier to read but was short and powerful. The National Book Award had decided to start giving out two winners, am I fond of neither (Augustus by John Williams and Chimera by John Barth). There isn’t anything from the year that jumps out at me and I’m tempted to say there should have been no winner, but pressed, I will go with Museums and Women, the short story collection by John Updike.
1974 – no award
Grade: F (for denying Pynchon)
The committee unanimously chose Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon but the Board decided not to make a choice. It was one of the two winners of the National Book Award. Though two of my favorite books were from this year (The Princess Bride by William Goldman and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel), it’s hard to argue with the choice of Gravity’s Rainbow (unless you’re on the Board, but they don’t seem to make good choices a lot of the time).
1975 – The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
This is another one of those books that really doesn’t hold up as great literature. It’s very easy to read, tells a good story, was very popular. In some ways that makes it the perfect winner for the Pulitzer, which is the quintessential American award and those things seem to be what American readers like. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great year for novels (not a great year for music either – woo is me who was born in 1974) and the big achievement that really deserves the accolades is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though I can’t ever see the Pulitzer Board going for something like that.
1976 – Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
Holy crap did they ever get it right. It’s in my top 40 of all-time (even though the Modern Library didn’t bother with it) and it was a major reason that Bellow won the Nobel Prize later the same year.
1977 – no award
Grade: D (for denying MacLean and overlooking Carver)
The committee recommended Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It, but the Board gave no award. The two National Book Awards went to Master Tung’s Western Chamber Romance and Spectator Bird while the newly established National Book Critics Circle Award went to October Light, but none of them have ever succeeded in winning me over. What all of the awards groups missed out on was Raymond Carver’s masterful collection of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet Please.
1978 – Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson
In its second year, the NBCC embarrassed the Pulitzers by giving their award to Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison’s first masterpiece as opposed to the rather uninspired short story collection Elbow Room.
1979 – The Stories of John Cheever
This is a year of complete masterpieces. The National Book Award went to Going After Cacciato. Their paperback award the next year went to The World According to Garp, which was eligible for this year. The National Book Critics Circle and Pulitzer went to Cheever. While I am personally inclined towards Garp, any of those would have been phenomenal choices.
1980 – Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
Finalists: The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth / Birdy by William Wharton
Granted, the first edition of the book does call Executioner’s Song a “true life novel” but it’s still rather stunning that the Pulitzers decided to consider it for the fiction prize. It is a pretty good choice, definitely the best work that Mailer would ever write after his debut, The Naked and the Dead. But The Ghost Writer, one of the finalists, is one of the great American novels of the twentieth century, even better than William Styron’s masterful Sophie’s Choice, which won the National Book Award. The committee actually recommended The Ghost Writer, but the Board over-ruled them and went with Mailer instead and Roth would have to wait almost 20 more years before finally winning.
1981 – Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Finalists: So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell / Godric by Frederick Buechner
Though this kind of demented humor isn’t normally thought of as something the Pulitzer Board goes for, they somehow went with this book written by a man who had already been dead for 12 years by the time he won the award. It is a fantastic choice and one of my favorite books of all-time, but definitely one that sharply divides people.
1982 – Rabbit is Rich by John Updike
Finalists: A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone / Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Rabbit is Rich is still the only book to win three major book awards in the same year – winning the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. I have to say it is a magnificent choice, a phenomenal book that finally started getting Updike the awards attention that he had been deserving for years.
1983 – The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Finalists: Dinner at the Homesick Restaraunt by Anne Tyler / Rabbis and Wives by Chaim Grade
The Color Purple was an excellent choice. It was a great book, it also won the National Book Award, and it was the first time an African-American woman had ever won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
1984 – Ironweed by William Kennedy
Finalists: Cathedral by Raymond Carver / The Feud by Thomas Berger
While “Cathedral” itself is one of the great short stories in American literary history, I think the Pulitzers did just fine for the fourth consecutive year. The National Book Critics Circle agreed, as they also gave their award to Ironweed. I obviously am good with this award as I have already made Ironweed my #100 novel of all-time.
1985 – Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
Finalists: Leaving the Land by Douglas Unger / I Wish This War Were Over by Diana O’Hehir
This really was a poor choice. Foreign Affairs isn’t a bad book, but it’s not all that great of a book. Granted, that alone wouldn’t necessarily make it a poor choice. But look at the competition. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle? Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, an amazing novel with great point of view shifts, probably her best novel. Winner of the National Book Award? White Noise, by Don DeLillo, also an amazing novel, the novel that really established DeLillo as one of the major fiction writers in America today. And they gave the award to Foreign Affairs without even making either of those two books finalists?
1986 – Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Finalists: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler / Continental Drift by Russell Banks
There really were a lot of good choices this year. The actual choice, Lonesome Dove, gets a bit long and seems like it will never end, but it’s a good book and not a bad choice. Neither would either of the finalists have been and The Accidental Tourist had won the National Book Critics Circle. Then there is World’s Fair, the solid novel from E.L. Doctorow that won the National Book Award. They were all solid choices. Not great choices, but solid. But then there is Blood Meridian, the amazing violent, almost nihilistic novel by Cormac McCarthy that established him among the forefront of American writers, joining DeLillo, a book that should have won all the awards and somehow managed not win any.
1987 – Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor
Finalists: Whites by Norman Rush / Paradise by Donald Barthelme
This is a hard year to judge. I’ve read Summons to Memphis, which is an okay book. I actually haven’t read either the National Book Award winner (Arctic Dreams), the PEN/Faulkner winner (Soldiers in Hiding) or either of the Pulitzer finalists. I have read Kate Vaiden, the NBCC winner and I don’t think much of it. But Philip Roth wrote an amazing book this year called The Counterlife, a post-modern novel in which the characters rebel against their author, the book that really should have won. Instead, Roth would have to wait another decade before finally winning his Pulitzer (The Counterlife would actually win the NBCC the next year because of different eligibility dates).
1988 – Beloved by Toni Morrison
Finalists: That Night by Alice McDermott / Persian Nights by Diane Johnson
What can I say other than that it is one of the single greatest novels ever written and the single best choice the Pulitzers ever made (only three novels that were even eligible for the Pulitzer rank higher on my top 100).
1989 – Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
Finalist: Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
For the first time in nine years, they definitely made the wrong choice among the finalists. While The Risk Pool by Richard Russo is the finest novel of that year, the amazing short stories in Where I’m Calling From are the brilliant posthumous summation of Raymond Carver’s short story career.
1990 – The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
Finalist: Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow
Not a year of great candidates. Mambo Kings is good, but not a great book. Billy Bathgate, also a good book, was the first book to ever win the NBCC and the PEN/Faulkner and would have been a better choice. Among the available books of the year, I am most inclined towards A Prayer for Owen Meany, the last of John Irving’s great books, before he began his decline.
1991 – Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
Finalists: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien / Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan
Updike’s final Rabbit novel again won the Pulitzer and the NBCC and is a fantastic choice. The only problem is, it’s up against The Things They Carried, the magnificent novel made up of interlocking short stories by Tim O’Brien. I have absolutely nothing critical to say of the Updike, but I personally go with the O’Brien.
1992 – A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Finalists: Jernigan by David Gates / Mao II by Don DeLillo
For the second consecutive year the Pulitzer agreed with the NBCC. I remember my English teacher, Carol Mooney, talking to me about it because we had just studied King Lear, but I never took to it. I would rather go with Mao II, the Pulitzer finalist that also won the PEN/Faulkner. But my top choice of the year is The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.
1993 – A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
Finalists: Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates / At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott
Good Scent is a very good collection of short stories. But for only the second time, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle went to the same book: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. And I have to agree with those two awards.
1994 – The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Finalists: Operation Shylock by Philip Roth / The Collected Stories by Reynolds Price
For the final time (so far), the Pulitzer and the National Book Award go to the same book and I absolutely agree with them. It makes my top 100 and should be popping up within the next few weeks.
1995 – The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
Finalists: What I Lived For by Joyce Carol Oates / The Collected Stories by Grace Paley
I didn’t think very highly of The Stone Diaries, one of the first books that I read simply because it won the Pulitzer. I have never read either of the finalists. The NBCC actually also went to The Stone Diaries and the PEN/Faulkner went to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book I absolutely hated and I still haven’t read the NBA winner, A Frolic of His Own. My choice, of the limited supply of worthy books for the year would be In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien.
1996 – Independence Day by Richard Ford
Finalists: Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos / Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
Independence Day is a good book and it not only won the Pulitzer, but also the PEN/Faulkner. Sabbath’s Theater would have been a better choice, the third of Roth’s finalists and it did win the National Book Award. But this was also the same year as Wonder Boys, the masterful novel from future winner Michael Chabon.
1997 – Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser
Finalists: Unlocking the Air and Other Stories by Ursula K. LeGuin / The Manikin by Joanna Scott
Martin Dressler is a mediocre novel at best, but this was an extremely weak year. Women in Their Beds, another weak choice, somehow managed to become only the second book to win both the NBCC and the PEN/Faulkner. There are many who would argue for Infinite Jest, and quite frankly, while I am not a fan, it would have been a far better choice. My own personal choice would be In the Beauty of the Lilies, the last of the great Updike books.
1998 – American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Finalists: Underworld by Don DeLillo / Bear and His Daughter: Stories by Robert Stone
It’s a great choice and it was about damn time they finally managed to give Roth the Pulitzer. It was certainly a better choice than Cold Mountain, which won the National Book Award. I am surprised though, that they went for Roth rather than DeLillo’s epic Underworld. It was a rare true competition between two books about the American experience in the 20th century.
1999 – The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Finalists: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks / The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Hours won both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner and while both of the finalists were very good books, they definitely made the best choice.
2000 – Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Finalists: Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx / Waiting by Ha Jin
This is the most recent year in which a previous winner (Proulx) would still make it to the finalist stage. While there is no rule that a previous winner can’t win again, it seems that once an author wins, they seem to stray away from that particular author, no matter how good the later title is. The Proulx isn’t actually as good as people think and “Brokeback Mountain”, the main story, was a better film than story. But Waiting is a very good book (it won the NBA and the PEN/Faulkner) and there was also Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, which won the NBCC. But I will say the same thing about Interpreter of Maladies that I always say. It is the best collection of short stories since Dubliners.
2001 – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Micahel Chabon
Finalists: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates / The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams
While The Human Stain, which will post this week in my top 100 won the PEN/Faulkner, to me there is no question that the Pulitzer Board made the right choice. I rank Kavalier and Clay as the best American novel of the 21st Century.
2002 – Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Finalists: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen / John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
Truly a phenomenal year. Bel Canto won the PEN/Faulkner. The Corrections won the National Book Award. And still they made the right choice by giving the Pulitzer to Richard Russo’s magnificent Empire Falls.
2003 – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Finalists: Servants of the Map: Stories by Andrea Barrett / You are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett
Middlesex is a bit of an uneven book, absolutely brilliant in parts, and sometimes beginning to lag. But there is no question that for the fourth year in a row they made the right choice.
2004 – The Known World by Edward Jones
Finalists: American Woman by Susan Choi / Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins
The Known World is a very good book and it won both the Pulitzer and the NBCC, but I prefer The Namesake, the first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.
2005 – Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Finalists: War Trash by Ha Jin / An Unfinished Season by Ward Just
Gilead is a good book and a good choice, certainly better than either finalist. It also won the NBCC while finalist War Trash won the PEN/Faulkner (the National Book Award went to News from Paraguay). But my choice is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, a great revisionist look at American history in the 1940’s. Since Roth won the Pulitzer, he has continually won other awards but has never again been even a Pulitzer finalist.
2006 – March by Geraldine Brooks
Finalists: The March by E.L. Doctorow / The Bright Forever by Lee Martin
On the one hand, the Pulitzer’s passed on The March, thus denying Doctorow a Pulitzer (he still has never won) and keeping it from being only the second book to win three major literary awards, as it had already won both the NBCC and the PEN/Faulkner. On the other hand, I didn’t think it was really all that great and for that matter, didn’t think all that highly of the actual winner, March, either. While Cormac McCarthy would finally win the next year, this is when he should have won for his masterful No Country for Old Men.
2007 – The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Finalists: After This by Alice McDermott / The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
This is another year where they should have given a second Pulitzer to Philip Roth. The Road is a good book, but not as good as other McCarthy (or even his previous book, No Country) and I am not a fan of either McDermott or Powers. The PEN/Faulkner went to Roth’s Everyman, a short, magnificent book.
2008 – The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Finalists: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson / Shakespeare’s Kitchen by Lore Segal
My friend Jay and I are both fantasy fans and comic book fans, the exact type of people who should have loved Oscar Wao and we both viciously hated it. Neither of us can understand how it managed to win both the Pulitzer and the NBCC. It’s not a great year and I wasn’t a huge fan of Tree of Smoke (which also won the NBA), had weak offerings from Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) and Don DeLillo (Falling Man), so I would go with Philip Roth’s farewell to his epic character of Nathan Zuckerman in Exit Ghost.
2009 – Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Stout
Finalists: Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich / All Souls by Christine Schutt
I couldn’t actually take to any of the winners this year. I wasn’t a big fan of Olive Kittredge, couldn’t get into Netherland, which won the PEN/Faulkner and thought Shadow Country, the NBA winner, to be over-rated. 2666, which won the NBCC was written by Chilean writer Robert Bolaño and wasn’t eligible. In typical Pulitzer fashion, they ignored former winners Philip Roth (Indignation) and Jhumpa Lahiri, whose magnificent short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, is easily the best collection since her own Interpreter of Maladies.
2010 – Tinkers by Paul Harding
Finalists: Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet / In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
I have to give this an incomplete for now, because I’ve never even heard of it. I work in a bookstore and I’ve never heard of it. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders certainly has had a lot of support. I’m a bit surprised that Let the Great World Spin didn’t even end up in the finalists, or maybe I’m not considering the Pulitzer track record lately. I would personally have gone with Inherent Vice, the new Pynchon novel, his best in decades, but it’s certainly not Pulitzer fare.
Best Decade: The 1980’s – They started with a magnificent group of choices and really only stumbled once.
Worst Decade: The 1930’s – A terrible group of choices that overlooked pretty much every single truly lasting work of literature in the decade.
The grades seem to have gotten better over time. I’m not certain if that reflects better choices or if that’s with time, we can see what they should have chosen in the early years and other books will emerge from the last few decades that I’m overlooking now.
- A+ 9
- A 5
- A- 9
- B+ 7
- B 10
- B- 8
- C+ 8
- C 10
- C- 11
- D+ 2
- D 4
- D- 1
- F 2
- I 6
By using the old grade-point standard, and dividing by the total number (excluding the incomplete) we get a final grade of:
So there we go. They don’t make particular good choices, but many of their choices aren’t that bad. But truly the best in American literature like they are supposed to be? Well, I wouldn’t say that. They haven’t earned that. But they’ve been getting better.