This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on April 10, 2013.
On Monday afternoon, the Pulitzer Prize Board will announce the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Or not. Last year, for the first time in 35 years, there was no prize awarded for fiction. Imagine Bono walking on stage to award the Grammy for Album of the Year and announcing that there wouldn’t be an award for Album of the Year. It was like that. The snub earned the Pulitzer Prizes more publicity — and not the good kind — than the actual awards, and I can’t imagine them laying an egg again this year.
NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan, one of three jurors on the panel that narrowed the 300-book fiction field to three finalists, was openly critical of the Pulitzer Prize Board for failing to award a prize for fiction. “The Pulitzer is too prestigious and crucial an award to book lovers, authors and the publishing industry to be sporadically — and unaccountably — withheld,” Corrigan wrote in the Washington Post shortly after the awards were announced.
The Pulitzer Prize is sort of an Academy Award for authors — a career-defining, zeitgeist-bestowing, income-enhancing marker that ensures your calls and emails will get returned for at least the next few years. Since Las Vegas odds-makers and red carpet hosts aren’t particularly interested in the Nerd Oscars, here’s a look at some of the books and authors who are generating the most buzz ahead of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes.
The Pulitzers are the last of the major annual book awards to be announced for the publishing year, so the winners tend to be known quantities. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf), Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead) and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) all won the National Book Critics Circle Award en route to Pulitzers. All but one Pulitzer for fiction since 2000 have been awarded to books published by a Big Six publisher, so most winners have had considerable marketing dollars behind them and a considerable number of copies in print.
First, let’s knock out three of the most praised books of the year on technicalities. The Pulitzer for fiction is limited to American authors (how rude!), so Alice Munro’s much-loved short story collection Dear Life (Knopf) is out because Munro is — wait for it — Canadian. Also out: UK’s Hilary Mantel, who wrote the Booker Prize-winning Anne Boleyn novel, Bring Up the Bodies (Henry Holt), and Zadie Smith, who wrote the London-set NBCC finalist NW (Penguin).
There is no consensus favorite this year in the fiction category, but two Iraq War novels have received significant attention and are the likely frontrunners. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk (Ecco), about a group of veterans honored during halftime of an NFL football game, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a National Book Award finalist. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown), a piercing and lyrical war novel, was a National Book Awards finalist and one of the New York Times ten best books of 2012.
The two issues that have dominated American politics for the last six years have been the economy and health care, so the more politically inclined members of the Pulitzer Prize Board may want a novel that speaks to those dual frustrations. Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King (McSweeny’s), about a struggling U.S. businessman with a suspicious lump in his neck and a make-or-break opportunity in Saudi Arabia, was a National Book Award finalist and made numerous ten-best lists. Eggers, the publisher of the independent McSweeney’s, should get indie-cred points for breaking through the noise outside of the Big Six publishers. Also, most of the voting members are journalists, and Eggers is respected for his nonfiction work.
Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (Harper), a literary thriller set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota that won the National Book Award, is a sequel to The Plague of Doves (Harper), which was a Pulitzer nominee in 2009. The Pulitzer Prize Board, though, tends to steer clear of National Book Award winners; Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is the only novel in the last 30 years to win both prizes.
The most intriguing possibility by far is Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Pantheon), a collection of 14 graphic novels about the residents of a Chicago apartment building. The books are not ordered and are varied in format, so you experience them intermittently and randomly the way you would memories of your own life. It’s not clear whether a graphic novel is eligible in this category, but Art Spiegelman won a “Special Citation” Pulitzer — presumably because the Pulitzer Prize Board couldn’t decide where to put it — for his graphic novel/memoir/history Maus (Pantheon) in 1992. I’m crossing my fingers for Building Stories.
Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead), a collection of short stories featuring the “Yunior” character from his two previous story collections, was a National Book Award finalist, a fixture on nearly every top-ten list, a best-seller, and a media fixture. Diaz won the Pulitzer in 2008 for Oscar Wao, and only three authors (Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike) have won multiple Pulitzers for fiction, so Diaz is something of a longshot despite the high praise.
Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House) in 2001, is also an unlikely repeater for Telegraph Avenue (Harper), his novel about music, race and gentrification in Oakland, California. Same for Richard Ford’s Canada (Ecco); Ford won for Independence Day (Knopf) in 1996.
Those are the big names.
If the Pulitzer Prize Board goes for a less-obvious title as with last year’s Pulitzer nominee Swamplandia! (Knopf) by Karen Russell, consider these possibilities: Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (Harper), Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (Voice), Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House), Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, or Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver.
UPDATE: The winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House).