Established by Joseph Pulitzer, prize-winning journalist, this award has become a coveted prize among many novelists. I dreamed I would be the winner after I wrote my first book in fourth grade. Did I mention I’m unpublished?
According to the Huffington Post (link below), “The Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for achievements in journalism, literature and musical composition. They were established in 1917, and are run by Columbia University.” In 2012, the board at Columbia deemed “no book worthy” for the second time, the previous non-winning year was 1977.
This term, I’m responsible for reading two Pulitzer winning fiction books, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the winner in 1961; and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, the 2011 winner. As part of my analysis, I hope to find common ground between these two novels so I could submit my “shortlist” of qualities that make a novel worthy of this distinguished prize.
These novels are light-years apart in theme, character, story and basic concept. However, I did manage to find some broad common denominators between these acclaimed novels.
1. Unique Writing Voice
Lee writes solidly from the perspective of Scout. Her voice is child-like and authentic. Egan jumps from point of view to point of view but every new character has his or her own distinctive voice.
2. Strong POV Characters
Scout is a beloved character in literature. Even though she sacrifices her childhood, she gains insight that many adults have never acquired. Egan switches between first, second and third person and most of her characters garner reader sympathy or powerful commiseration. Some of them are stronger.
I was most surprised by her chapter written from second person. It was convincingly written and I felt like I was inside that character, even as he shoved at me with “you” and “your.”
3. Character Arc
If characters don’t change, learn or grow, a story has been wasted. Although Egan’s character arc was difficult to follow because of the non-linear way she organized her book, the major characters did grow and change. From drug-addict to kleptomaniac to respectable mother of two, Sasha overcomes obstacles I’m happy to have never faced. Learning that friendship is more valuable than prestige, Bennie suffers through many losses but ends up emotionally ahead in the end.
4. Theme: Timeless but Pertinent
Like all good books, both of these novels have numerous themes. I will focus on the one I found to be most relevant in any era.
One thing Atticus re-emphasizes with his children is the fact that empathy leads to compassion and true understanding. In the end, Scout comes to the same realization. Gossip and speculation cause people to form erroneous assumptions, but from the porch of the Radley house, Scout understands empathy is the road to ultimate truth.
In her novel, Egan shows that no one is unredeemable. Failures and detours mark every character in the story. No one is unscathed. In the end, there has been a small victory for each person. Not that it’s a happy ending, but the reader walks away with a tiny glimpse of hopefulness.
I think I was more surprised by the things that didn’t seem important. In this case, there were literary elements I felt a Pulitzer novel should include, but either one or the other of these authors fell short of the mark.
In my mind, a literary prize should include:
- A linear plot line (or at least a clear plot)
- Beautiful language
- Strong structural elements
In fact, A Visit from the Goon Squad failed to include any of these three items. I will concede that Egan used her words well, sparingly and effectively, but I wasn’t enthralled by any particular turn of phrase.
On the other hand, Lee uses all of these elements in her winning novel. Many pithy turns of phrase made their way into my Reading Journal.
Is the committee starting to relax their standards? Is there no strong writing being produced in America that’s worthy of this prize?
3 thoughts on “What Makes a Pulitzer Prize Winner?”
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