However, today's principle post is about the Pulitzer Prize, the annual award of letters given out by Columbia University that will announce its winners and finalists on Monday. Alongside the Man Booker, the Pulitzer is one of the most coveted awards in the English language and the winner in the fiction prize is sure to garner a massive spike in sales as thousands of readers go out to buy the winning book.
So important is the award to the publishing industry that the failure to award a winner a few years back had a significant negative financial impact and created a bit of an uproar in publishing that such a decision is unlikely to happen again any time soon.
Like most literary awards, predicting finalists and winners is difficult because you are dealing with the idiosyncratic tastes of a small jury. The Pulitzer is especially tough to predict because a short list is not announced beforehand and finalists are revealed at the same time as the winner. So the notorious betting associated with the Man Booker is something The Pulitzer is free from. Further obfuscating the process is that the jury (usually three people from the literary world) only offer up the three finalists and a larger board decides which of the three deserves the award. Funnily enough, last year the jury offered three books that the Pulitzer Board did not like and instead of repeating the mistake of 2012 of not giving a prize in the field of fiction the board asked the jury to come back with another pick, that turned out to be All The Light We Cannot See, which was the relatively inoffensive and likeable winner,
Thankfully the folks at the Pulitzer Prize First Edition Collecting Guide have created a list based on statistical modelling, using historically predictive indicators (such as being short listed for the National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award or making the NY Times Notable 100 or Top 10 list) to rank the books most likely to win. Of the 15 books that make the list, usually among them is the winner.
OK so my thoughts about potential winners.
First things first, the award is only open to American authors, so no international books.
Secondly, the prize criteria says that the book should explore themes about American life. In recent years the Pulitzer has seemed to move away from this. The Orphan Master's Son took place almost exclusively in North Korea and All The Light We Cannot See took place in France and Germany, so it appears that the book being thematically limited to the United States isn't really essential.
Lastly, the winners tend to be more popular than other awards. While other awards, like the National Book Award, seems more willing to choose more difficult works or short story collections, the Pulitzer seems as eager to honour books that have been the talked about books of the year (at least among the more serious reader). The last two winners, The Goldfinch and All The Light You Cannot See were best sellers and probably did not need the award to draw attention to the authors. This isn't to say that the award will go to genre fiction titles (James Patterson and David Baldacci ain't gonna win it) but if you peruse the list of former winners you see titles like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Middlesex, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that are significant literary books that were also popular and widely consumed.
OK OK I've bored you with enough background...so lets talk books.
The Sellout. Beatty has already won the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Tournament of Books, so he has strong momentum behind him. This cutting satire digs deep into the self-congratulatory claims of post-racial society in the United States and offers a non-stop barrage of hilarious prose. Beatty gives a unique glimpse into the absurdity of a world where the confident pronouncements that racism is a thing of the past are just part of an elaborate practical joke being played on blacks. The Sellout is a capital "I" important book and will be one of those novels we look back on with admiration for years to come, will tell friends to read, and then share laughs about how funny and amazing Beatty's story is. It would be a worthy choice.
Another strong contender is Anthony Mara's The Tsar of Love and Techno, a series of interconnected short stories that stretch in time and place from the old Soviet Union to the post-Soviet republics and the Chechnya war. This was definitely one of my favourite books when I read it last year, with some of the stories leaving me breathless in admiration. Mara has been pegged as one of the great upcoming writers, with his first novel The Constellation of Vital Phenomena receiving critical praise, and Tsar has also garnered a fair share of passionate admirers (as witnessed by the commentary in this year's Tournament of Books). That said, I don't believe it will win. Partly because it's a short story collection and not all the short stories are of equal quality, but also because while I loved it when I read it, it hasn't stuck with me really (except for one haunting story) and it isn't a book I have rushed to recommend or praise as an "it" book. Mara will certainly win the Pulitzer one day, but I don't think this is the one that gets him the prize.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff got enormous attention when it came out and was picked early on as a Pulitzer contender. The book was short listed for the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Award and Barack Obama picked it as his favourite novel of 2015, so it definitely has buzz. It was also a very ambitious novel, presenting the tale of marriage from two very unique perspectives, forcing the reader to think about how marriages and relationships work, how accurate each party's image of the relationship is, and what self-diluding lies we tell ourselves to make the relationship work . It's heady stuff and Groff is an excellent writer, but it is also written in almost too clinical prose, to the point where I found the style cold and off putting. During the discussion of this book during the Tournament of Books a few commentators noted the similarities between Fates and Furies and Gone Girl and more than one voice concluded that the latter pulled off the dual perspective narrative structure better and I would tend to agree. Saying that, I just don't feel the Pulitzer is going to give its award to a book that will be looked at in a few years with a sense of "that was a good book" rather than "wow what a great novel"...especially in what has been a pretty strong year in fiction.
James Hannahan's Delicious Food is another book that got lots of buzz when it was released in early 2015 but then kind of disappeared from the radar. It wasn't shortlisted for any of the major awards and appeared to not be in consideration. Then it made the NY Times 100 Notable books and was shortlist for the Pen/Faulkner Award and seems to have peaked interest again. Delicious Food is a dark take into the world of addiction, following the story of a widowed mother's dependency on crack cocaine that takes her to a world of indentured servitude deep in heart of Texas. Hannahan brilliantly uses the voice of personified crack cocaine for several chapters and his writing is powerful. I think this was one of the big books of the year, but I also found it a bit of a slog to get through. It could very well win the Pulitzer and that would go a long way to give Hannahan some deserved exposure but I am not convinced it will be the winner.
Another book that I did not believe would be in the hunt when I read it but that has captured significant attention is Angela Flournoy's first novel The Turner House. It was a surprisingly shortlisted for the National Book Award and then powered through the Tournament of Books to the final before succumbing to The Sellout in a relatively competitive final. To be honest I wasn't blown away when I listened to the audiobook. Flournoy tells an interesting story of the Turner family as it tries to decide what to do with the family house in the heart of contemporary Detroit, intertwining African American mythology into a compelling and modern narrative of African American life. However, I did not find anything special about the story telling. Although well written, it felt conventional and derivative and I do not believe it will be a book that will hold up with time.
But my pick to win is...
A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara
A Little Life follows the story of four college friends fresh out of college and traces their interactions over several decades. Quickly the story shifts focus to one of the men, Jude, who is the most treasured and loved of the friends but also the one harbouring a really dark past he cannot tell the others about. This is a book that needs a trigger warning sticker on the front as it delves into issues of sexual violence and abuse that are not easy to ingest. Yanagihara tests our patience, exposing Jude to such brutal treatment that we think neither he nor us can take any more but then she gives us more. A Little Life is a dark and brutal fairy tale about the limits of friendship and how those friendships respond to pain and suffering. In the end we have accompanied Jude on his journey, a journey filled with some really poignant joyous moments but also the deepest and darkest ones filled with despair and sadness. We aren't sure if we are happy to have been there for the trip but it leaves us with a visceral reaction that permanently etches in the our mind.
I want to say that this book was my favourite novel of 2015. It was a tour de force, an 800 page epic novel that I powered through and that left me emotionally wasted. I think back at moments in the novel, and still get the feels remembering. Yanagihara's novel isn't something to take lightly and I was initially cautious about recommending it to others. It is one of these books you finish, step back, take a deep breath, whimper and then wonder if you should tell others to read it too. I have since given a copy to my mother, who is in the midst of reading it and loving it, so maybe it is something to tell others about.
A Little Life definitely has many accolades. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and recently shortlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. It won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction. It received effusive praise from highly regarded literary podcasters like Ann Kingman from Books on the Nightstand and Simon Savidge. Garth Greenwell wrote a widely read review in The Atlantic calling the book The Great Gay Novel many had been waiting for. She even got some late night television coverage, guesting on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Despite the praise and many devout followers, there have been polar opposite reactions from critics and readers alike who were turned off by the sexual violence, the brutality, the prose, or the lack of realism. The New York Times felt the need to write not one but two reviews panning it. The Millions also had quite a harsh take on Yanagihara's second novel.
I am not sure I have seen a book so divide the reading community as much as A Little Life (maybe the Goldfinch?), but in many ways I think that is the reason it should win. 2015 was a fantastic year in literature and many books would be worthy of the Pulitzer. But the year in fiction has in many ways been about what your opinions were about A Little Life. It was at the centre of some pretty intense debates, with very thoughtful arguments about the significance of Yanagihara's creation and whether or not she pulled it off. The discussions during the Tournament of Books were at their best with match ups involving A Little Life. That Yanagihara has managed to create a work of art that has provoked the deep emotional response it has with readers is something that stands out for me and I think will stand out for many years to come.
The awards are being live streamed on Monday on the Pulitzer website around 3pm. It is worth checking out. No matter who wins, I will say 2015 was a particularly good year in books and it was a joy to have read so many of them.