The 10 incredible prizewinners stand the test of time.
The Pulitzer Prize honours American talent in the areas of journalism, music and literature. In fact, looking at past prizewinners of its fiction prize, it’s a who’s who of enduring writers: from Toni Morrison and Harper Lee to Donna Tartt and Jhumpa Lahiri.
The winning books themselves stand the test of time, combining readability, humour and human emotions with beloved characters and some of society’s biggest themes: grief, prejudice and economic standing. Not bad going for a prize that’s been running since 1917…
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Ahead of the 2020 winner being announced in April, we’ve selected some of the time-honoured classics that took home the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; trust us, not one of them will let you down.
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1921)
As the world (well, the Stylist team) eagerly await Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon in Julian Fellowes’ take on The Gilded Age for HBO, now is the time to revel in the writer who’s synonymous with the era (along with Wharton’s friend, Henry James). In this tragic love story, buttoned-up and engaged Newland Archer falls for the beautiful Countess Olenska who’s tainted by scandal for leaving her husband. But, due to economic, moral and social constraints, their love affair is doomed from the start… Written with perceptive detail that utterly transports the reader, this tale is an absolute joy to read but one that’ll leave you weeping.
One Of Ours by Willa Cather (1923)
Embracing the wilds of Nebraska and the battlefields of France during the First World War, One Of Ours is an insight into Cather’s ability to capture the beauty of nature in ways that just leave other authors standing (“Every morning the sun came up a red ball, quickly drank the dew, and started a quivering excitement in all living things.”). Presenting one man’s discontentment with his own life, it’s a story very much of its own time (the war section desperately clings to the notion that it was a noble endeavour rather than a gigantic waste of life) but one that firmly places Cather as one of America’s most enduring writers.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1961)
With each reading and generation To Kill A Mockingbird develops new resonance. This iconic (and problematic) tale of systemic racism and injustice is almost too unbearable to read set against the rise of Trump and the need for #BlackLivesMatter – nothing seems to have changed since Lee wrote her story 60 years ago… but it still offers glimmers of hope that humans can be better. As Atticus Finch quietly explains: “I wanted you to see what real courage is… It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1983)
Celie, Nettie, Sofia and Shug… these are the characters of The Color Purple who will live on in your mind and heart. Exploring the lives of African American women in rural Georgia during the 1900s, Walker became the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (although Walker maintained there were plenty of black female writers who should have won before she did).
In an emotional story, Walker’s female characters are abused, attacked and exploited by their husbands and lovers (who in turn have internalised the brutality of slave owners) but find salvation and independence through their own courage, love and friendships.
Beloved by Toni Morrison (1988)
It’s hard to recover from Beloved. Inspired by the true-life trial of Margaret Garner, who killed her child rather than allow her to experience a life of slavery, alongside Morrison’s own desire to commemorate the “60 million and more” Africans and descendants who lost their lives to the Atlantic slave trade, Beloved is a haunting and disturbing story of repressed trauma, psychological and physical scarring, violence and maternal love. It’s all an essential part of anyone’s reading list.
The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1994)
Like any forecast, The Shipping News can go either way for readers so it’s best to take it as it comes without any preconceptions. Written in its own distinctive prose, Proulx’s book has deep rewards for those who embrace the story of thirtysomething Quoyle who – when faced with one tragedy and disturbing plot twist after another – decides to move with his two daughters and aunt to his family’s abandoned ancestral home in Newfoundland. Put simply: there’s not another book like it.
Interpreter Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)
A book of nine short stories, Interpreter Of Maladies was also Lahiri’s debut work; it was published when she’d just turned 30 and has since sold over 15 million copies globally. The culture clash of old and new traditions run throughout each of the stories as first and second-generation immigrants try to align their deep-rooted feelings for India with the pull and demands of America via marriage, work, family and relationships.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2009)
“She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.” Olive Kitteridge, just like A Visit From The Goon Squad, is made up of 13 intersecting stories (if you’ve got your eye on a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction take note) to create a portrait of a town in Maine. Weaving together her characters, Strout is really interested in the very human fear of being alone, coping with tragedy but also getting through the every day with stoicism and hope. If you feel things getting on top of you, this is a book to give you comfort and understanding.
A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011)
The shifting of time and music’s changing impact playfully weave in and out of Egan’s masterwork as she stitches together the loosely linked lives of various narrators: from kleptomaniac teenagers and starlets to louche middle-aged music producers and singers. Written with verve and humour, its narrative of 13 chapters (each of which reads like a short story) makes it the perfect partner for a commute – you’ll race through it then be reflecting on what it all meant for months afterwards.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2014)
Sprawling, ambitious and, at times, utterly crazy, Tartt’s tale of Theo Decker who becomes embroiled in art forgery, international drug dealing and self-medication is not for the faint-hearted (and can divide readers). From the opening explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where Theo loses his mother and steals the eponymous painting of the goldfinch) to a showdown in Amsterdam, it’s a visceral read that explores pain, love and everything in between. Once read, it’s not easily forgotten.
Images: main image by Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash, book jackets courtesy of publishers
Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown
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