Predicting the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Pultizer Prizes for 2018 will be announced on April 15, so I thought it would be fun to take a look at the field and try to do the impossible: predict the book that will win for fiction. There have been a lot of left-field winners in the history of the prize, so if I don’t even list the winner, please don’t judge me. But here are the books I see as the biggest contenders.

And before you even ask: Washington Black is ineligible because author Esi Edugyan is Canadian. So there.

The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner

I haven’t read this novel about a woman serving consecutive life sentences in a women’s correctional facility, but I’ve heard a lot about it since its release. A lot of people love this book, but a lot of others hate it. It’s quite possibly the biggest love-it-or-hate-it novel of 2018. If the fiction jury falls into the love-it camp, we may have a winner. Kushner is also the author of at least two smash critical successes in the last decade: Telex from Cuba and, especially, The Flamethrowers. I feel like it helps to have at least one critical success to your name in order to catch the Pulitzer board’s attention (think Jeffrey Eugenides or Junot Diaz), and Kushner definitely has that advantage.

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

The author of my favorite book from 2018 could fit that bill as well: The Great Believers is Rebecca Makkai’s fourth book and each has garnered her a degree of critical acclaim. The problem I see there is that those books were still largely unknown–I follow books and had never heard of Makkai until I read The Great Believers. If previous work does matter, Mars Room makes a much more compelling case. But don’t count Believers out. It has scores of critical acclaim and is, in my opinion, a wonderful book. The way Makkai deftly weaves large issues like WWI, AIDS, and terrorism into “smaller” novel issues like family and grief (which frequently win Pulitzers) is nothing short of astonishing.

There There, by Tommy Orange

If any debut novelist has a shot, it’s definitely Tommy Orange, whose electrifying series of interlocked stories set the literary world on fire last year. His smart subversion of the typical way Native Americans are approached in fiction is unassailable, and what novel in of 2018 more specifically deals with American life (one of the criteria for the Pulitzer) in a more specific way than There There? There are some who shrug at the fuss over this book, so there’s a chance the fiction jury won’t be impressed either–but this one seems like the smart bet.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson

Johnson is a storied American writer who never won a Pulitzer and who sadly died in 2017. This, his final story collection, was published posthumously. Not one but two of his previous works were finalists for the Pulitzer: Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams (which was nominated alongside Karen Russel and David Foster Wallace in the year that oddly did not award a prize). Another of his books, Jesus’ Son, is a cult classic. What better way to celebrate the life of this writer than to send him out with the prize that eluded him before?

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

Powers is another previous finalist (for 2006’s The Echo Maker) and another celebrated American novelist. Despite the fact that it’s a dense brick of a novel about trees, The Overstory has already been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and was frequently cited as one of 2018’s best. I’ve never read any of his books because to be honest they sound like a slog, but you can’t deny that Powers will always be in the conversation.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

This feels like it needs to be part of the conversation–and really, a novel about the wrongful conviction of an African American man framed as a relationship drama couldn’t be more timely or political. Maybe it’s that I really didn’t like this book, but I can’t make myself think of it as a serious contender.

The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea

The Pulitzer love a good family drama, and The House of Broken Angels has that in spades. A novel about a dying Mexican-American patriarch, this book features a sprawling family and deals with themes of family and death that have captivated the Pulitzer board before, so don’t count it out.

Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry‘s highly unique format (it’s told in three distinct sections that don’t always correlate to each other) will either make it or break it with the Pulitzer board. Halliday is a rising star in the literary world and Asymmetry caught a lot of attention, but I’ve seen some say that they felt alienated by the book’s atypical structure. As such, it may be a hard sell for the Pulitzer board (which ultimately decides on the winner with feedback from the fiction jury). This may be a more likely nominee than winner, but we’ve had some “quirky” winners in the last fifteen years (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or The Orphan Master’s Son), so we’ll have to wait and see.

Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

In the era when Trump is president and Green Book wins Best Picture at the Oscars, can a debut short story collection that heavily deals with race and injustice catch a break? This book landed directly on my TBR and I can’t wait to read it. If this book wins, it would be a thrilling upset. But I can’t help but think that it’s constantly been having its thunder stolen all year. The debut with all the buzz is There There. The bestselling novel about social injustice is An American Marriage. Friday Black keeps getting crowded out of the conversation–and the Pulitzer announcements will either be more of the same or Friday Black‘s big moment at last.

My prediction:

My heart demands that I say The Great Believers, so I’m just going to stick with that.

2019 Pulitzer Prize Predictions

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