Apr 10th 2014

Pulitzer Prize Preview: First a Rant, Then Some Predictions

by Scott Porch

Scott Porch is an attorney and writer in Savannah, Georgia. He has written for the Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Salon.com. He is writing a book about the historical impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

First, a rant: Every year, the Pulitzer Prize Board announces the nominees and winners in mid-April. The nominees and winners are announced the same day. There is no Nominations Day followed a few weeks or months later by Announcement Day. There is only Announcement Day.

In each of four categories — fiction, history, biography, and nonfiction — there are three nominees, so 12 books will be nominated in all. And nine of them will be overshadowed by the four winners. (That is, if there are four winners; some years — like two years ago for fiction — the Board declines to pick a winner.)

The Man Booker Prize has long followed a practice of announcing a longlist, then paring that down to a shortlist, then announcing a winner. The National Book Awards, which have long announced the nominees before announcing the winners, added a longlist to the process last year.

The National Book Awards’ reason was exactly what you would expect: “Our mission is to increase the impact of great writing on American culture and these changes are concrete steps to further that mission,” David Steinberger, the chairman of the National Book Foundation’s board of directors and CEO of Perseus Book Group, saidin the announcement.

Would it kill the Pulitzers to announce the nominees a few weeks before the awards and shine a little more light on the nominees? Would that not have the added benefit to the Pulitzer Prizes of increasing their own exposure?

End rant.

Here’s a look at some of the major contenders for this years Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced — nominees and winners alike — on April 14:

Fiction. The Pulitzer Prizes are the last major literary awards for books published the previous year. By the time the Pulitzer Prize Board votes, the newspaper best-books-of-the-year lists and the National Book Award nominees and winners have already been announced. That results most years in a winner that has already achieved a fair amount of critical consensus.

In my Pulitzer preview last year, I listed seven well-known, well-reviewed, on-all-the-lists novels as the favorites and five titles that were possibilities if the Pulitzer Prize Board picked something less obvious, including Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House), which was the eventual winner.

There is no clear favorite this year, but three books have received the lion’s share of the praise: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Scribner), a kaleidoscope tale of art, politics, and motorcycles set in the 1970s; Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Little, Brown), a Dickensian epic and one of the year’s best selling literary novels; and George Saunders’ Tenth of December (Random House), the best collection of short stories to date from one of the masters of the form.

Beyond those three, it’s a wide-open race that includes James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (Knopf), Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown), Philipp Meyer’s The Son (Ecco), Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (Knopf), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Knopf).

Given the Board’s heavy representation of journalists, the prevalence of Russian aggression in the news during the selection period, a strong critical reception, and the book’s setting in the Russian-Chechen conflict, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth) is an underdog with potential.

Prediction: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.

History. This was an especially strong year for history. Pulitzer rarely rings twice, but the big history titles were all by previous winners. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster), Rick Atkinson’s Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Henry Holt), and Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf) are the sort of big, engrossing epics that the Pulitzer Prize Board often awards.

Gary J. Bass’s The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide (Knopf) is a shocking story of the human toll of realpolitik in diplomacy that adds yet another facet to Nixon’s history. Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (Harper) is a gorgeously written cultural history of the Civil War era. Carla Kaplan’s Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (Harper) is an illuminating look at the white women on the periphery of the Harlem Renaissance.

Prediction: Gary J. Bass’s The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide.

Biography. Beyond A. Scott Berg’s Wilson (Putnam), and Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 (Simon & Schuster), 2013 was a thin year for big-name biographers and subjects. The most-praised biographies are Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Doubleday), Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf), and J.Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life (Simon & Schuster).

Prediction: Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World (Knopf), the Supreme Court justice’s memoir of her early life.

Nonfiction. The odds-on favorite is Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown), her riveting, anguishing tale of a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina.

Other strong titles include Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Crown), David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux), George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which won the National Book Award.

I especially liked Jon Mooallem’s bouncy, personal Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (Penguin Press), and it would be nice to see the Pulitzer Prize Board recognize such a singular, original voice.

Prediction: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown).



This article was first posted on the Huffington Post. Posted here with the kind permission of the author.


This article was first posted on the Huffington Post. Posted here with the kind permission of the author.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."