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The Pulitzer Prizes: The Most “American” American Book Awards

Edward Nawotka By Edward Nawotka Published on April 17, 2016

When it comes to major, headline-making literature prizes in the United States, there are two that matter: the Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Awards. In many ways the two awards are mirror images of each other. The Pulitzers are awarded in April each year and the NBAs are presented in the fall; the Pulitzers release no shortlist, while the shortlists for the NBAs are highly hyped; the Pulitzers are announced through a press release, while the NBAs are presented at a black-tie gala in a five-star restaurant. That said, they are similar in one particular way: winners of the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards both receive $10,000.

When it comes to prestige, both are on equal footing — though in some ways the Pulitzer Prize may be more prestigious in so far as the judges choosing the award are typically working journalists and teaching professionals who might be viewed as having a more “objective” take on judging the year’s top books, rather than the panels of writers chosen to pick the National Book Awards — people who might have allegiances, grievances, and personal relationships that might sway their judgment.

The Pulitzer Prizes were first established in 1917 by newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer and they continue to be administered by Columbia University in New York City, home to the most prestigious journalism school in the US. Several boldface names have won multiple prizes, including poet Robert Frost and playwright Eugene O’Neill (who both won four times). Technically, the Pulitzer Prizes are given in 20 categories, with six categories reserved for “Letters”: Fiction, Drama, History, Biography or Autobiography, Poetry and General Non-fiction. And whereas the National Book Awards focus on literary merit, the Pulitzers emphasize that the books have a strong connection to or reflection on American life. So, one might say that if you want a quick read on the tenor of the times and how the country feels about itself and its history, you could do worse than check out the most recent winning titles.

That said, more and more recently both prizes have shifted away from themes of American life — perhaps reflecting the general trend toward globalization and the realization that the United States is not an isolated cultural island, but one more fully engaged with and vulnerable to the vagaries of the world. To wit, in 2015, Anthony Doerr took home the fiction prize for All The Light We Cannot See, a bestselling book about a blind French girl and a young German soldier during World War II. The book — which is a superb, epic, literary page-turner –has little to do with themes of “American Life,” much like the 2015 winner in the biography category, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer.

More in line with the prize’s stated mission was Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn, which won in the history category in 2015 and reveals the “lost” history of a tribe of Native Americans before and after their first encounter with Europeans who came to the new world. The Poetry award went to Digest by Gregory Pardlo, an African-American poet whose work ranges in subject from singer Sam Cooke to Roots, the famous novel which offered a fictionalized history of an African-American slave written by Alex Haley, and was itself awarded a “special” Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

Looking at 2016, it is impossible to predict with accuracy what the Pulitzer judges might choose, though one would surmise that there are a few standouts that will be identified by the one novelist on this year’s Pulitzer Board, the Dominican Republic-born Junot Diaz — who himself won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his best-selling first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Were I asked to give my preferences for what books the judges might bestow the award upon, I would suggest they look at writers who are working on the margins of the mainstream — in a ways that has made the mainstream take notice. If there was one clear topic of conversation at the dining tables of American literati last year it was race. In this regard there are several clear choices for potential winners: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, an incendiary letter from father to son about how to live as a black man in American, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine for poetry, Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda in drama; and I Am Radar by Reif Larsen for fiction. All offered powerful, and very “American” takes on the topic. (Though I suspect Garth Risk Hallberg’s fat fictional history of the last several decades of life in New York, City on Fire, may win for fiction.)

Whoever wins this year’s Pulitzers, one thing is guaranteed: they will have their names inscribed in the annals of American letters for posterity and in perpetuity.

American journalist, editor, traveler, and believer in the power of books to change the world.


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