Our Favorite Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novels

Love it or hate it, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (Personally, I LOVE it.) So we here at Book Riot got to talking about past winners and wrote down a few thoughts about which ones are our favorites.

Junot_wao_coverSarah Rettger: It’s a tough call between March (2006) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). I’m a sucker for new interpretations of classic fiction–and like any good bookish girl, I love me some Jo March–but then I think about the footnotes. And how much I love the voice in Oscar Wao. And then I decide it’s time to reread them both.

Alison Peters: I am feeling self-consciously short-sighted, (as in, picking the most recent favorite, not necessarily the most Beloved)…but nonetheless, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2011) is my – oh forget it, who am I kidding? Beloved (1988) is the best of the best, the book that changed and charged a nation, the novel that students everywhere anticipate and dread dissecting all at the same time. A complete departure from the ‘norm’, a love/ghost story, a true classic. (In Egan’s defense: I loved her book, a funky retro-current account of the music industry meets the e-age and the excellently funny chaos that ensues from there. And she’s not too far off with the crazy tablet-attached e-babies at the end of the novel, somewhere in the distant ‘future’.) But 10, 20, 100 years from now, we’ll still be whisper-talking about Beloved, and Morrison.

David Abrams: My favorite Pulitzer? Tough to choose! How do you pick the creamiest from the creme de la creme? I’m tempted to go with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1980), or the universally-loved To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) by Harper Lee, or the incredibly-inventive and blistering Beloved by Toni Morrison (1988). But in the end, without so much as flipping a coin, I’ll go with Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This 2009 winner stole my heart and my breath the first time I read it. Olive Kitteridge is labeled “a novel in stories;” but like Sherwood Anderson’s seminal collection Winesburg, Ohio, each of the 13 tales can stand on its own. Pull any of them out at random and you’ll have a snapshot of coastal New England life rendered in fine-grained detail. Olive Kitteridge is the kind of woman you would duck across the street to avoid meeting. She’s abrasive as sandpaper rubbed across a scab and unapologetically rude. Now retired, she taught seventh-grade math in the small Maine town of Crosby for years, earning a reputation as the mean teacher who leaves her students flustered and trembling. She is loud, unnerving, tart-tongued, and completely unforgettable. At some point, we’ve all had an Olive Kitteridge in our lives. Some of us might even be Olive Kitteridge, though our vanity prevents us from seeing it. It’s that kind of familiarity with the Olives of the world which makes Elizabeth Strout’s work of fiction such a rich, absorbing reading experience.

Brenna Clarke Gray: I didn’t even have to think for one second about this: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003). Middlesex has that gorgeous, epic, intergenerational scope, of course, and Eugenides is a skilled writer, but more importantly for my reading life, this was the first time a Pulitzer winner connected with me in an immediate and visceral way. I had always seen Pulitzer winners as should-reads: you know, books I understand are wonderful for all sorts of reasons but might not really be the kind of book that crushes my soul and makes wine from it. But Middlesex blew me away and made me more confident to read other Pulitzer winners, expanding my reading life in really positive ways. So the choice for me is an obvious one.

maladiesCassandra Neace: It turns out that I haven’t read as many Pulitzer-Prize winning novels as I would have thought. I didn’t know any beyond the last three years just off the top of my head, so I had to consult a list. Of the six that I had read and remembered clearly, my favorite is the Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000). It is rare that I pick up a short story collection and read it from cover to cover in an evening. I like to take my short fiction in small doses, but I couldn’t put this collection down. Each story stuck with me in a way that I didn’t expect and couldn’t quite understand afterward. Another title from the list that had a similar effect is To Kill a Mockingbird. The only reason that I didn’t pick it as my favorite is that I’ve only read it once, while I’ve picked up the Lahiri over and over again.

Kit Steinkellner: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1995) for life! This novel just unstitched me. Runners up are Lonesome Dove (1986) because every page is like “F— yeah” and To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) because I am an American Human Person.

Tasha Brandstatter: Hands down my favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1921). It’s actually one of my favorite novels of all time. I sat down to read it one night and literally did not stir from the chair until 3 a.m. Wharton immediately sucks you into the world of Gilded Age New York and the seemingly perfect life of Newland Archer. His forbidden love affair with the Countess Olenska is totally swoon-worthy. I ADORE her. Newland’s kind of an idiot, but he’s an idiot caught between what society expects of him and what he wants to do with his life. I’m a total sucker for books like that. Great story, great writing, ALL THE FEELS. What’s not to love?

Rachel Cordasco: I, too, adore The Age of Innocence (1921), since it stands up to the constant re-read because of its elegance and sophisticated wit. Wharton was one of the most talented, and versatile, writers of the 20th century, and I recommend all of her other novels, as well! Also, I must mention Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1923), a quiet but powerful novel of World War I, in which we grow close to the main character over many pages before he even goes off to war. I dedicated many hours of reading and writing throughout college and grad school to these remarkable writers, women who observed and critiqued American culture with grace, patience, and honesty.

Rachel Manwill: Like Brenna, Middlesex (2003) was the obvious choice for me, but as a very, very close second, I’m going with The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2001). This was the book that started my love affair with New York City, early 20th century period novels, and what a beautiful love affair it has been. Chabon’s novel is at once a sweeping history of a city (NYC), a war (WWII), and a forgotten art form (pulp comic books), as well as being the story of family, religion, obligation and magic (like rabbit-from-a-hat-magic, not magical realism). This is the Great American Novel you never knew you wanted.

Jodi Chromey: Since Alison nabbed my much beloved A Visit from the Goon Squad (2008), I’m going with my second choice. But before I tell you about it I want to tell you that shortly after I finished college, I set out on a quest to read all the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction. I read a lot of great books and then I got to A Summons to Memphis (1987) and it made me want to die. I can’t remember anything about the book or why I hated it so much, just that it was one of the first books I ever quit and it made me abandon my Pulitzer prize reading project. However, before I quit I read A Thousand Acres (1992) by Jane Smiley and I dragged that book with me everywhere the summer of 1996. This resetting of King Lear on an Iowa farm about the Cook sisters and their father enthralled me so much that I literally could not put it down and I distinctly remember reading it in the back office of the gas station I worked at while getting very cranky at the customers who were disturbing me. When I finished the book I was so shocked and moved and in awe that I called my BFF Amy and told her to get to the bookstore and buy it immediately.

KavalierMinh Le: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2001): While I don’t think this is necessarily the best book on the list, I’ll always have a soft spot for Kavalier & Clay. In thinking about why the book resonated so deeply with me, I was reminded of a recent interview with author/artist Gene Luen Yang. He hits the nail right on the head with this: “Most superheroes juggle two identities – a heroic one and a civilian one. Dual identities are a daily reality for immigrants and their kids… The creators of Spider-man, Batman, and pretty much every major hero you can think of were all children of immigrants. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Liberty Hardy: Soooooo many of my favorite books are Pulitzer winners (The Killer Angels, The Orphan Master’s Son, The Executioner’s Song, A Confederacy of Dunces) and I am really tempted to go with Lonesome Dove (1986) because after I finished reading it, I slept with it under my pillow for a week because I couldn’t part with it, but when I really shine the interrogation lamp on my brain, my answer is The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2004). I had never read anything like it. It floored me. Hell, it basemented me. We definitely weren’t taught about black slave owners in school where I grew up. And I extra-love him, because I went to see Jones speak at UNH several years ago, and when someone asked him for his advice on how to become a writer, he said, “Read everything you can get your hands on.” Which is my mantra. He’s magnificent!

Josh Corman: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2007) and Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2001) deserve a mention, but Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2005) might be my favorite book of all-time, so when I saw the word ‘Pulitzer’ in the question, I knew I had my answer. Robinson’s story of an aging minister writing an epistle to his young son both warms and rends the heart unlike any I’ve ever read. Like many of my favorites, I’ve gone back to it more than once, and every time I read it, I’m changed. New moments of significance and beauty rise to its surface and I am wrecked afresh (in the best possible way). When I’m asked to recommend a book to any person, for any reason, Gilead is my first response.

Elizabeth Bastos: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer in 1972 and it is a masterpiece. First of all, the title. So genius. Dictionary.com identifies “angle of repose” geologically as “the maximum slope, measured in degrees from the horizontal, at which loose material will remain in place without sliding,” but we all know Stegner is talking about the loose material that is love, and history, and the making of the American West. The characters are pioneering, the prose is masterful, heartbreaking, tough and tender, like the roses that are one of the book’s recurring metaphors, and one of my favorite flowers.

Greg Zimmerman: Quite possibly the funniest novel ever written, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, won the Pulitzer in 1981. (Toole won posthumously. You know the story — distraught he couldn’t find a publisher for his novel, he off’ed himself. Eleven years later, the novel was published, and subsequently Pulitzered.) If you love jazz, or hot dogs, or booze, (or strippers?), Ignatius Reilly’s exploits in and around New Orleans, as he tries to get the world to recognize his genius, will have you rolling. If you’re amused by Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, you’ll love Ignatius.

Amanda Nelson: I’m obligated to say both To Kill A Mockingbird (1961) and Gone With The Wind (1937) because my sons are named Atticus and Rhett, but aside from those (oh oh and The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), which cured me of my teenaged Ayn Randiness, and Gilead (2005), but that’s been talked about enough), I’d say my favorite Pulitzer winner is The Killer Angels (1975) by Michael Shaara. When I first picked it up I was all PFFT, Civil War fiction about dudes, whatever, but this novelization of the Battle of Gettysburg is humanizing and heart-breaking and epic and beautiful and sad. It is [insert the adjective that gets you to read novels because really, you should read this novel], and made me analyze the motivations of the South in a way I hadn’t done before.

hours michael cunninghamJeanette Solomon: Hands down, it’s 1999’s winner, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which is just a gorgeous book. I love Virginia Woolf, and I love interconnected stories, and I love picturing Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore and Ed Harris when I read books. It was one of the first works of literary fiction I ever read, having previously convinced myself that classics were the only books worth reading, and that was just because it involved Virginia Woolf. Cunningham writes beautifully, and he does a wonderful job of getting in the heads of three very complex women: Virginia Woolf herself; Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife; and a Clarissa Dalloway-esque character, Clarissa Vaughn, brilliantly played by Meryl Streep in the film. He also an aging poet and novelist dying of AIDS, Vaughn’s best friend and one-time lover. Just a painfully lovely story that it’s definitely time for me to read again.

Sean Bell: As Teju Cole recently noted, “Some say the Pulitzer for Fiction is like the Nobel Peace Prize: the category that gets it wrong most often.” Upton Sinclair famously turned down his Pulitzer because he felt that prizes – either seeking or receiving them – were a bad influence, tempting writers towards pandering and self-censorship. I can’t help but agree with both opinions, which is my favourite Pulitzer winner has to be A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Posthumously awarded in 1981, twelve years after the author’s suicide, Toole was, for the most tragic of reasons, long past caring what the Pulitzer committee thought of his work. As for the opus he left behind, it is still one of the funniest and bravest books of the 20th century, which defies conventional narrative structure and rejects phoney realism in favour of New Orleans authenticity. Anyone looking for an antidote to contemporary literature’s plethora of bland, fill-in-the-blanks Mary Sues will find it in Confederacy’s antihero, the magnificently ridiculous Ignatius J. Reilly. We should wish for more protagonists even half as memorable.

Preeti Chhibber: Oh man, trying to choose a favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novel is very, very tough. My head is saying “Choose Jhumpa Lahiri! Do it!” but it is also saying, “But don’t forget about Oscar Wao!” and “You also just read The Orphan Master’s Son which you did really, really enjoy” or “Hello? That powerpoint chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad? Please. That’s the best.”

Obviously, I am having trouble. But I suppose if I decide that this is based purely on my reading experience while I was actually reading the book, I’m going to have to go with Interpreter of Maladies (2000) by the good lady Jhumpa because that is a book that has stuck with me and will stick with me for as long as I am able to have coherent thoughts. It was one of the first books I read that was written by a fellow South Asian, and her interpretations (sorry) of being a first generation, or an immigrant were so spot-on it was almost painful for me to read. There were some hard truths amongst her beautiful style, and I appreciated it. I can’t think of another book that spoke to me as clearly as Interpreter did when I read it.

Wallace Yovetich: Not only is The Shipping News (1994) my favorite on the Pulitzer list, it’s also one of my favorites of all time. I recommend it almost every time someone asks for a book to read, but a lot of people are scared of it. I love the realness of the characters and their lives. One would think that a story like this, set in the harsh climate of Newfoundland would be depressing, but I found it surprisingly hopeful. I wish everyone would read it and not just see the movie – as always, there’s so much more to the book that they could capture on screen.

Readers: Tell us about your favorite Pulitzer-winning novels in the comments!

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