Books

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: a brief history of this prestigious award

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is an American award that celebrates “distinguished fiction published in book form.” Let’s explore the provenance of the prize.

Administered by Columbia University, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction takes its name from the endowment of Joseph Pulitzer, who was “the most skillful of newspaper publishers, a passionate crusader against dishonest government, a fierce, hawk-like competitor who did not shrink from sensationalism in circulation struggles, and a visionary who richly endowed his profession,” according to the Pulitzer website.

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is amongst 22 other categories that are awarded to celebrate achievements in arts and literature. With Joseph Pulitzer’s endowment as part of his will, the inaugural Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917, a few years after his death.

Colson-Whitehead pulitzer prize
Two time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead. (Photo: colsonwhitehead.com)

The Pulitzer Prize juries, comprised of a mix of major editors, columnists and media executives, the dean of Columbia University, and a selection of major figures from academia and art circles, convenes semi-annually to decide the nominees and winners of the Pulitzer Prizes, which awards arts and journalism across 22 different categories.

Notably, prior to 1975, the jury’s recommendations for nominees and winners underwent a ratification process, involving the majority vote of Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York i.e. the governing body of Columbia University. However, since 1975, the board and university institutions have remained separate in the decision-making process of the prize.

Many of the most significant disagreements in the history of the Pulitzer Prizes have been in the fiction category. The earliest instance was in 1921, when the selection committee overruled Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, in favour of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. 

Ernest Hemingway’s 1941 recommendation in the novel category for For Whom The Bell Tolls met vicious opposition from the chair of Columbia University, who cited the association of the university with the novel — which explored sexuality in a frankness that was scandalous for its time — as the main hurdle; no award was given that year. In the same vein, the recommendation of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, in the fiction category, by the jury was overruled by the board of trustees and again, no award was given that year.

Many writers have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction multiple times, including Colson Whitehead, John Updike, and William Faulkner.