Every year, there are two things I get really excited about guessing: who will win what at the Oscars and what book will win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Why this particular prize and not any one of the numerous other literary awards? For one thing, it’s the most familiar to me. I’ve known about the Pulitzer Prize longer than I’ve been aware of the Booker, the Women’s Prize, etc. For another, the Pulitzer Board doesn’t release a longlist or shortlist or tell you who the finalists are before the Prize is announced. That makes it a lot more exciting–and a lot more difficult. If any of those other prizes are going to award something out of left field, you’re kind of warned because you’ve seen what’s in contention. With the Pulitzer, the announcement of the winner can come with a pure moment of whiplash. Tinkers? What even is that?
Of course, the downside of this is that it makes predicting the winner virtually impossible. And yet here I am.
There aren’t really any good indicators of what might win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but if any exist the American Library Association’s Notable Books of the year is as close as we get. They have a tendency to include the ultimate winner of the Pulitzer–you just have to filter out any titles that aren’t by American authors. I used that in compiling this list alongside a site I found that does annual predictions for the Pulitzer called PPrize. Mostly, however, I’m relying on what I guess you could call gut instinct.
Deacon King Kong, by James McBride
This is the one that I’m guessing is going to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. It’s not my personal choice, but I think James McBride has consistently been putting out well-received books over the last decade and Deacon King Kong is the title that feels like it broke through the hardest. Reception to this book has been pretty consistently positive. The New York Times named it one of their ten best books of 2020. It’s an ALA Notable title. It’s even blessed by Oprah. Unfortunately, as much as I absolutely loved The Good Lord Bird, I thought this one was just okay.
Here’s how the ALA summed this book up: “Brooklyn, 1969. A man called “Sportcoat” shoots a local drug dealer, and it takes a village to tell the rest of the darkly comic tale.” McBride tells an astonishing amount of stories in this book to give you a sense of the community Sportcoat lives in and how many of its citizens exist on the margins of society. The problem, to me, is that it’s so zoomed out that it feels like it lacks focus. I wouldn’t be mad if this wins, I just wouldn’t be all that excited.
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
PPrize, the Pulitzer prediction site, has The Vanishing Half in first place over Deacon King Kong. Let’s run through the pros: it’s an ALA Notable title, it’s been well received in critical circles, it’s a New York Times best book of 2020, it’s currently long listed for The Women’s Prize, and Brit Bennett was previously well received for her debut novel, The Mothers. In addition to all that, The Vanishing Half deals with timely and complex racial politics in a notably American way.
The con? As well received as this has been, it’s also been met with a fair share of criticism. Personally, I think a lot of this comes down to the way Bennett frames a complex story in a commercial, digestible framework. I think that’s a good thing, but maybe the Pulitzer jury and/or board might sneer at it?
Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar
This, in my mind, is a HUGE potential spoiler for Deacon King Kong. It flew a bit under the radar in 2020 but has really big fans behind it. The New York Times Book Review gushed about it several times on their podcast. It was also featured on the Times’ 10 best books of 2020, and I’ve heard people who have read it rave about it. It doesn’t seem like too many people out there have read it, but those who have seem to love it.
Having said that, it’s not an ALA Notable title and it barely made the list of predictions for the PPrize prediction site (placing 14th out of 15 contenders they identified). Still, I think it has decent odds for an upset.
Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam
I am not a big fan of this book but I can see why it registered so well with a lot of people in 2020. It’s about two couples (and two teenagers belonging to one of those couples) isolated from society when a mysterious disruption occurs. Unable to go online and find out what’s happening, the little group finds themselves adrift in a world that has come unmoored. It’s uncomfortable and it’s about uncertainty, and it’s also about ownership and race because one of these couples is white and renting an AirBnB from the other couple, who is black.
I thought there were very smart things about what this book did, but I had a lot of quibbles. By the end of it, I had grown increasingly irritated with the book. To be fair, though, I read it at the apex of my 2020 stress over both the pandemic and the election, which may not have been the best idea. If it wins, I won’t be mad. I’ll get it. But I will be a bit disappointed.
A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet
I was underwhelmed by the plot description of this book when it made the National Book Award longlist (and then shortlist), but from there it made appearances on several year-end best lists (although not the ALA’s). If the Pulitzer jury is into parables about climate change conveyed through retellings of the Bible, they’ll love this. They did recently go for Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which is a heavily environmental novel—although I would point out that The Overstory feels sturdier and, well, less gimmicky. We’ll find out.
Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu
Interior Chinatown feels like a classic underdog story at the Pulitzers. Its only real claim to fame is that it seized the National Book Award away from Shuggie Bain, Leave the World Behind, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, and The Children’s Bible. It’s also far and away the quirkiest book on this list and also probably the most comedic from what I’ve heard. The Pulitzer board can love innovative approaches to storytelling—think when they selected A Visit From the Goon Squad and its PowerPoint chapter over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which most people expected would take the title). And it can love slyly comedic takes on a serious subject—think about how Andrew Sean Greer recently surprised everyone by winning for Less, a comedic novel about a gay man fighting aging and loneliness. And given that the serious subject matter of Interior Chinatown is racism against Asians in America, it couldn’t feel more topical. Classic underdog.
Run Me to Earth, by Paul Yoon
I was completely unfamiliar with Paul Yoon until I started researching this list and now I desperately want to catch up on his work (this one in particular). Here’s the ALA summary: “In this cinematic tale, three orphans in 1960s Laos do what is necessary to survive the chaos of war and its aftermath.” It’s not a story collection, more interlocked stories that form a full narrative and it sounds fantastic. The cover is also pretty. Particularly in a year when Viet Thanh Nguyen (a previous winner for his novel The Sympathizer, which takes a hard look at the Vietnam War) is on the Pulitzer Board, this feels like it could be a spoiler. But the jury would have to recognize it first to put it in front of Nguyen, and that could be the fly in the ointment.
Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi
If I were in charge of the Pulitzer Prizes, this is probably the one that would win for me. I’m a huge fan of both of Gyasi’s novels and I think they tell very complex stories in interesting ways. Unfortunately, if this does end up winning a Pulitzer, I’m going to be very surprised. It’s even more divisive than The Vanishing Half—to the point that it doesn’t have any of the claims to fame that The Vanishing Half has (except the Women’s Prize longlist). It’s not even an ALA Notable title. The Pulitzer prediction site I found doesn’t even list this in their ranked possibilities.
It’s sad. I love this book and I would like to see it get some prize love.
Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart
The biggest barrier to Shuggie Bain winning a Pulitzer Prize is how inherently Scottish it is. Every Pulitzer jury interprets the Pulitzer mandate that a fiction winner should be “by an American author, preferably dealing with American life” differently. There’s even a citizenship question, and these things are dicey to parse out. I assume that since Douglas Stuart has been living in the US for a long time, he probably qualifies as American. But his book is VERY Scottish. It’s set in Scotland and even deals with Thatcher-era politics. Its only claim to being American in any way is that Douglas Stuart happens to live here.
But it’s a fantastic book—one of my favorites from last year. It’s also an ALA Notable title, a Booker Prize winner and a National Book Award finalist. So it’s possible. But I think unlikely.
Bear in mind that the book I dismissed in my prediction video for last year ended up winning. So what do I know?
The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans
This is another book that mostly flew under the radar in 2020. I almost wouldn’t even believe that it’s eligible for last year but it was, and it made the ALA Notable titles for 2020 list. It’s described as a novella and stories that all deal with race and black womanhood, which could make it a topical option for the Pulitzer Board if you want to be cynical about these things. But beyond that, people who have read this that I know seem to love it, so maybe if the jury for this year’s prize is among those people, The Office of Historical Corrections will have a shot. There have certainly been Pulitzer Prize winners with a low profile before—Tinkers, anyone?
The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich is someone who is known to the Pulitzer Board, having been a finalist in 2009 for the exceptional novel Plague of Doves. And as a Native woman consistently churning out critically acclaimed books that also do well in terms of sales, a win for her would feel like a significant career achievement (as well as a way of acknowledging a quintessentially American group all too often overlooked). Particularly because The Night Watchman weaves together an old family story of Erdrich’s with a critical (and critically forgotten) moment of shame in relations between Native people and the US government. But even Erdrich fans seem a bit tepid on The Night Watchman and it failed to register much of a presence in 2020. I read it and thought it was strictly fine. So if it does win, it will feel more like recognition for Erdrich than for The Night Watchman itself.
Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars, by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is even more known to the Pulitzer Prizes than Erdrich, having been a finalist for the prize FOUR TIMES but never actually winning (for Black Water, What I Lived For, Blonde, and Lovely, Dark, Deep). She is someone who is perennially in the conversation, so you can’t do a prediction list without her. Fans who have read Night, Death, Sleep, the Stars loved it, and at age 82, the Pulitzer might not have too many more chances to recognize Oates, a powerhouse of American fiction. But it’s hard to see that happening this year when this book didn’t get much major attention at all.
Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler is another powerhouse of American fiction, but unlike Erdrich and Oates, Tyler has claimed a Pulitzer before—in 1989 for Breathing Lessons (after two nominations for The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant). She hasn’t been back in the Pulitzer Board’s sights since the 1980s but she has remained a very rewarded author. She’s been a finalist and on the longlist for both the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize—most recently making the Booker longlist for this very title last year. It’s extremely rare for anyone to win two Pulitzers, though. Only four people have done it: Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead. But the most recent time it happened was last year, so maybe the floodgates are opening up? Still, even without that hurdle, Redhead feels like a long shot. But long shots have a way of winning Pulitzers.
If I Had Two Wings, by Randall Kenan
I’m going to be honest: if Randall Kenan hadn’t unexpectedly died in August of 2020, I’m not sure this book would be seen as the contender a lot of people consider it to be. When it made the longlist for the National Book Award, a lot of people thought he was at least a shoe-in for the shortlist. That did not pan out. If I Had Two Wings also failed to materialize in a lot of other key conversations throughout the end of 2020. Still, his blend of magical realism and southern storytelling has fans out there, and if one of them lands on the jury we could have a winner.
Memorial, by Bryan Washington
Bryan Washington blazed onto the literary scene with a one-two punch from a story collection called Lot (which I wasn’t a fan of), followed quickly by this novel (which I have on my TBR and am looking forward to reading despite my quibbles with Lot). Memorial missed a lot of the major conversation throughout 2020 and didn’t make the cut for any of the major prizes, but it still feels like a contender. The Pulitzer Board sometimes likes to anoint new talent, and Washington would certainly fit that mold. But I’ve also heard mixed to negative reactions to Memorial, so we’ll see.
Luster, by Raven Leilani
I think this novel about a young black woman navigating race and a complicated open relationship could be an interesting contender, but there are A LOT of people who just don’t like it. Even I loved the parts of the book that deal with the protagonist’s depression and anxiety about being black in the world but really had problems with the contrived plotting. The fact that so many people feel negative about this book makes it the biggest of longshots.
Real Life, by Brandon Taylor
Real Life and Luster are spiritual twins in that both deal with racism and extreme depression in black characters navigating a world dominated by white people, but Real Life is the far more successful of the two (I also preferred it when I read both for the opening round of the 2021 BookTube Prize). And while it also has some detractors, Real Life was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and appeared on several year-end best lists. It has a decent shot but simultaneously feels like it has a long, hard road if it wants to win the Pulitzer. If it does win, I won’t be disappointed, but I will be surprised that it managed to overcome all the obstacles in its way.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw
This is not an ALA Notable book. It’s not listed on the PPrize prediction site I keep mentioning. It’s only real claim to fame is that it made the National Book Awards shortlist for fiction in 2020 (where it lost to Interior Chinatown). I just love it and want good things for it. So maybe it doesn’t have a shot, but let this be your reminder to check out this story collection if you haven’t already.
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins
No matter what happens, I think we can all agree that if American Dirt wins a Pulitzer after everything that happened last year, we’re all going to riot.