19 March, 2017

The Pulitzer Fiction Prize and its Finalists


The Pulitzer prize for fiction is perhaps the most prestigious American literary award today. It started in 1917 as the Pulitzer prize for the novel that was to be awarded to the novel that "best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood". About ten years later, this homiletic statement was relaxed to "best present the whole atmosphere of American life". The last novel prize was given in 1947 to Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men". From 1948 onwards, the prize was renamed fiction with a new definition that continued to be used today: "for distinguished fiction published in a book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life". James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" would be the first fiction award winner.

The prize is administered in a bicameral manner. There is a fiction jury goes through all the entries and then reports, via the jury Chair, to the Advisory Board, usually with a shortlist of books (three nowadays) - sometimes with strong recommendation, sometimes without - for the prize. The jury has no voting right. That lies with the Advisory Board - comprising the Columbia University President and its School of Journalism Dean, numerous academics and publication industry representatives - who votes for the winner by a simple majority. The Board may choose to elect a book not on the jury's shortlist for the award, and this has happened numerous times in history. The Board may also elect to give no award for that year too, and this happened in 1917 (the first year of the prize) for example.

The prize announcement, of the winner and finalist, is usually made at Columbia University on the second or, more often, third Monday of April at 3pm EST. Unlike the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award, no shortlist is announced beforehand. Also, the finalists were not known before 1980.

Like all competitions in life, the winner usually attains instant fame  and earned his place in American literary history. The finalists, on the other hand, were often forgotten. With the 2017 Pulitzer prize just around the corner, I thought we should pay tribute some recurring finalists. Recall that there was no official finalist before 1980, the pre-1980 finalists were identified through the jury recommendation report in Heinz-D. Fischer and Erika J. Fischer's "Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction: Discussions, Decisions and Documents".

The top finalist, by count, is the prolific writer, Joyce Carol Oates, who hasn't yet won the Pulitzer, and whose work were shortlisted five times:
  • 1971: The Wheel of Love - The jury commented that Oates "plumbs 'ordinariness' to deep roots" in this book. Fellow finalists include Saul Bellow's "Mr. Sammler's Planet" and Eudora Welty's "Losing Battles". The Board elected to make no award that year.
  • 1993: Black Water - The jury commented that the book "is the rarest of novels: a fiction that goes beneath the historical record and newspaper headlines to unearth the truth of the human heart". Fellow finalists include Alice McDermott's "At Weddings and Wakes" and Robert Olen Butler Jr.'s "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain", which won the prize.
  • 1995: What I Lived for - Fellow finalists include Grace Paley's "Collected Stories" and Carol Shields' "The Stone Diaries", which won the prize.
  • 2001: Blonde - The jury commented that the book "deepens our sympathies for ourselves (at a cost), it sharpens our distaste for venality, it broadens our view of what's relevant to moral judgment, and it snares us with our own indecencies". Fellow finalists include Joy Williams' "The Quick and the Dead" and Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay".
  • 2015: Lovely, Dark, Deep: Fellow finalists include Laila Lalami's "The Moor's Account", Richard Ford's "Let Me be Frank with You", and Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See", which won the prize.
Oates was also multiple finalists of the National Book Award, which she won in 1970 with "them", and of the National Book Critics Circle Award, which she hasn't yet won. Of Oates' first editions, the first two novels, "With Shuddering Fall" and "A Garden of Earthly Delights", command the highest price of around USD 300-500. This is followed by "them" and the Franklin limited signed first edition of "Blonde" at around USD 200. As an investor/collector, I see very little prospect of price appreciation in her oeuvre unless she wins a major literary award. That's saying nothing of her literary contribution to American fiction.

Six writers were three times non-winning finalists: John O'Hara, Alice McDermott, William Maxwell, Reynolds Price, E. L. Doctorow, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

John O'Hara was also a prolific writer and was acknowledged by some, including John Updike, as a master of short stories. Yet his alleged proclivity for self-promotion and relentless yearning for exclusivity and recognition also gave him a bad reputation. Because of the untimely demise of his father, the young O'Hare could not afford to attend Yale, which developed into O'Hara's lifelong obsession for association. When the then Yale president was asked why Yale didn't confer an honorary degree on O'Hara, the president apparently replied: "Because he asked for it." Regardless, O'Hara's work had its admirers, chief of which was, well, himself. He regarded himself as equal to Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, and at one time, truly believed that he deserved the Nobel prize. His Pulitzer finalists were:
  • 1956: Ten North Frederick - Fellow finalists include Robert Penn Warren's "Band of Angels" and MacKinlay Kantor's "Andersonville", which the jury "cannot recommend too strongly for the award" and which was the winner. "Ten North Frederick" won the National Book Award.
  • 1959: From the Terrace - This book received the strongest recommendation from the jury for the prize. The jury noted that "in a year which was noteworthy for the number of first-rate novels published, this book stands out as a distinguished contribution..." The Board recognized O'Hara's merits but was doubtful of the book. In the end, the Board awarded the prize to the jury's second-choice: Robert Lewis Taylor's "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters". The other finalist was William Humphrey's "Home from the Hill".
  • 1969: And Other Stories - O'Hara died in 1970, but the Pulitzer prize remained elusive for him in his last years. The jury recommended N. Scott Momaday's "House Made of Dawn" for the prize and the Board went along with it. The jury's second choice was Louis Auchincloss' "A World of Profit" and O'Hara's book was the third choice, which the jury commented that "although the author has been never a Pulitzer, [the book] contains at least two stories which reflect the level of artistic achievement that has characterized the author's work."
John O'Hara's work is not widely read in schools and colleges today. One of the reasons is his refusal to allow his work to be included in anthologies. Of his first editions, only his first book, "Appointment in Samarra", routinely got sold at auctions at around USD 500. Some of his other books are listed in the USD 500-1,000 range today to few, if any, buyers. "Ten North Frederick", probably his most read work, can be gotten for less than USD 100.
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