The Pulitzer Prize remains the big daddy of American writing prizes. While the $10,000 prize may not be the biggest in the field, the sheer prestige that comes with it is priceless. 2013 was a great year for literary fiction and all signs are good that we won’t have a repeat of the 2012 prize when no award was given to fiction. It’s a tough prize to predict since it’s not one that steadfastly follows the stream of literary winners that preceded it like the Oscars (although all but one of the books listed here were nominated for the National Book Award), but there are certain signs you can look out for. Nine times out of ten, the novel will have been reviewed by the New York Times. Paul Harding’s winning novel Tinkers came from a small indie publisher and wasn’t reviewed by the paper at the time of the awards, the first time such a thing has happened since A Confederacy of Dunces. This also means the prize will more likely than not go to a novel published by one of the big five.
My predictions are split into three: The front-runners, the dark horses and the also-rans that shouldn’t be written off. I’ll start from the bottom and work my way up. The winners of all categories will be announced on April 14th.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell: Russell has been previously shortlisted for the prize in 2012, when there was no winner, with her novel Swamplandia! Her most recent collection of short stories saw her receive some of the best reviews of her career and the collection is a witty, varied and wildly creative mixture of magical realism, fantastical darkness and a recognisable humanity amidst the bizarre (stories in the collection include one about a man trying to seduce a sheep – it’s okay because he’s been turned into a horse – and vegetarian vampires living off of citrus fruit). I rank her as an outsider because anything remotely genre based doesn’t tend to drive the committee wild, and there’s another short story collection with more acclaim out there that seems more suited to their sensibilities. Still, don’t rule it out, and make sure you pick up a copy of her work at some point because it’s a real experience.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: While Lahiri wasn’t born in America, she is a naturalised US citizen and as such can be considered for the award (as well as the Man Booker, before the changed the eligibility rules). The Lowland received nominations from both the Man Booker and National Book Awards, and is full of the kind of themes the Pulitzer loves – family, identity, generational struggles – but Lahiri is best known for her short stories, and the acclaim for them has been somewhat more enthusiastic than it has been for her novel. Indeed, Lahiri won the Pulitzer with her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies, so a repeat performance is unlikely.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: Kushner’s second novel was panned by the New York Review of Books, but otherwise has critics asking if it’ll be looked upon as a classic in ten years time. The 1970s set story of art, motorcycles, political activism and the changing landscapes of America is light on plot but bursting with stunning prose and a deftly characterised female protagonist. It’s still a strange rarity to see literary circles praising a book about a woman written by a woman, although some silly people have claimed Kushner’s work is too masculine, whatever that means. Still, her prose is vibrant and she has a strong grasp and ability to deal with often complex history and ideologies (Fascism in 1940s Italy is a topic later in the book). Don’t write off this dark horse.
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Pynchon, the reclusive mastermind behind some of the 20th century’s most eclectic and difficult novels, has never officially won the Pulitzer Prize. Although the jury selected his most famous work Gravity’s Rainbow for the award in 1974, the main board refused to award it to Pynchon due to their offence regarding a single passage involving coprophilia (look it up kids, with a severe NSFW warning). While I doubt Pynchon himself cares that much, he may still get his chance with his most recent work, even though some critics claimed it was “Pynchon-lite”. Still, it’s a well-loved novel with a National Book Award nomination under its belt and many on the jury may resonate with the work set in pre-9/11 New York City. There’s a lot of Pynchon buzz right now between this and the upcoming film of Inherent Vice. Besides, there’s the chance he could actually turn up to collect it. Possibly. Not really.
Tenth of December by George Saunders: Right now, I would say this is the front runner for the prize. Everything’s there for it – rapturous acclaim, a slew of awards on the mantle, the sense that he’s overdue, and general warmth towards Saunders. The New York Times called it the best book of the year, and it was the inaugural winner of the Folio Prize, a literary award essentially designed to please the writing community in all its glory. Short story collections aren’t as favoured by the committee as novels but if any author were to break the over decade long streak, it’d be Saunders.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride: The won that beat out most of these names for the National Book Award, McBride’s latest hasn’t been met with universal praise, but those who love it are unabashed in their enthusiasm. His tale of a slave who unites with abolitionist John Brown (who mistakes the slave Henry for a woman due to his wearing a dress) was even compared by many critics to Huckleberry Finn. A win for McBride’s story would be timely given the recent Oscar success of 12 Years a Slave, although this is probably just me reaching for some connections here. The Pulitzer judges are less concerned with these kinds of narratives.