Pulitzer Prize Preview: First a rant, then some predictions

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post on April 8, 2014.

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).


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