Predicting what will win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is an insanely difficult thing to do. For one thing, unlike most major literary awards in the modern era, they don’t release a list of finalists before the winner is announced. That means you only get one shot to get it right–and without the benefit of a longlist to help you guess which direction the Board might be leaning this particular year. There’s also an element of secrecy involved because the Pulitzer Board doesn’t reveal the names of the people on the jury that will help determine the winner until the prize itself has been announced. And there’s the fact that the fiction prize can be all over the map–sometimes going to the obvious frontrunner, sometimes going to an obscure title; sometimes sticking to its stated mandate, and sometimes going well off-script; sometimes favoring “serious” literature, and sometimes going to light, comedic novels.
The process of determining a winner for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is also a bit unusual, which is probably why the prize can be so varied. Each year, a jury is selected to read all of the submitted books. The jury will select their favorites to become the finalists (usually consisting of three books) that are submitted to the Pulitzer Board, which decides what will ultimately win the prize in each category. The jury makes a recommendation for what should win and the Board can either listen to them or not. The Board may even decide not to award a prize at all if they don’t like the options they are presented. That’s right: the Pulitzers can be petty.
The brief for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is as follows: “For distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” How each jury interprets that mandate can vary wildly.
The awards for 2022 are scheduled for April but for the last two years they have been delayed due to the pandemic. We will see if the same happens this year. The options the jury and the Board will have to weigh were all published in 2021 and represent a lot of worthy winners depending on the direction they decide to go.
Let’s look at the possibilities, shall we?
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, Honorée Fannone Jeffers
Pedigree: ALA Notable Title, NY Times Best Books of 2021, National Book Award longlist, National Book Critics Circle Award, Washington Post Best Book of 2021
Let’s just get my prediction out of the way first. The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois has about the highest profile you can have without having already won a major literary prize already (the closest it came was being longlisted for the National Book Award). The author, who has been a mainstay on the publicity circuit (and who is a truly fantastic spokesperson for her work), calls it a “kitchen table epic” — the type of story traditionally either ignored or maligned by publishers and critics for focusing on life’s more intimate moments instead of grand action. It’s a book with a lot to say about America, race, family, and the ways in which history continues to resonate in the present.
There’s no denying that Love Songs is the frontrunner this year, but the Pulitzers love to be unpredictable, so whether or not it crosses the finish line in front remains to be seen.
My Biggest Potential Spoilers
The Trees, Percival Everett
I may be allowing myself to be swayed by the fact that Everett was a surprise finalist last year—after all, there will be a different jury this year, so history may not repeat. But it feels like since making the shortlist in 2021, Everett’s profile has grown considerably, making it seem more likely that he could win. And I may be overstating this book’s odds given that it has flown almost completely under the radar—missing all the major book awards and critics lists along the way—but it still feels like Everett is suddenly an author in the conversation after a long and steady career, and one primed for some major recognition. The fact that The Trees covers urgent and difficult topics only helps that.
Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen
Pedigree: The Washington Post’s Top 10 Books of 2021
I don’t think you can ever count Franzen out for the Pulitzer since he’s been in the conversation with every book he’s published since The Corrections (well, maybe not so seriously with Purity). I think Crossroads represents a serious shot at the prize for the contentious, divisive author because, well, people seem to like it. It feels like Crossroads dodged some of the complaints people had about Franzen’s previous work, and the fact that he’s kept a relatively low profile before and after the book’s release can only help since Franzen opening his mouth on a publicity tour usually doesn’t go so well. I’d say it’s a serious threat.
The Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead
Pedigree: Booker Prize finalist, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, Women’s Prize longlist
The biggest potential mark against The Great Circle is that other major book awards already have their fingerprints on it. If the Board of the Pulitzer is worried about standing out at all, that might make The Great Circle a tough sell for them. Still, it didn’t actually win any of those awards, so maybe there’s room for an upset here. It also has a lot of the other marks that a winner has, and it does feel like an American story on a global scale. That leaves its chances a bit (no pun intended) cloudy.
Matrix, Lauren Groff
Pedigree: ALA Notable Title, National Book Award finalist, Carnegie Medal shortlist
Lauren Groff feels like an author who is bound to win a Pulitzer for Fiction at some point, but given that the prize is intended to award a book that deals with American life, can she win for a novel that was set before the United States of America even existed? Authors have won for books that don’t actually deal with American life before (The Orphan Master’s Son is a recent example), but not enough that it’s commonplace. It feels safer to label Matrix as a potential spoiler and assume that the Pulitzer Board will wait to see what Groff comes out with next instead.
Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So
Pedigree: ALA Notable Title, Carnegie Medal longlist
Afterparties felt like it flew under the radar for the most part last year but it’s been popping up in my corner of BookTube/the Internet a fair amount lately. It’s not unheard of for a Pulitzer to be awarded posthumously (both James Agee and John Kennedy Toole won their awards after they died), but to be fair it is rare. If Afterparties should win, it would join those ranks. It’s a story collection from an author many felt was on the rise, it feels fairly well-liked, and it feels like it has some momentum going as word of mouth builds. If Afterparties makes the nominations list that gets submitted to the Board, it could pull off an upset.
Here’s the other thing: short stories used to be more of a thing at the Pulitzers but it’s been a decade since a story collection won (and the last two story collections to win were Olive Kitteridge and A Visit From the Goon Squad–which stand out because they’re more interlocked stories than a traditional story collection). There’s not enough data to show if the Pulitzer is moving away from story collections, but one does have to wonder if it’s become a tougher road for them.
The Prophets, Robert Jones, Jr.
Pedigree: National Book Award finalist
I loved this book so much when I read it in early 2021 that I declared it an early prediction for the Pulitzer. What happened? Unfortunately for The Prophets, a whole lot of not much. This feels like the trajectory for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which seemed like it had all the makings of a winner and then for some reason (perhaps divisive response), it just couldn’t hold the spotlight—failing to land any major awards or critics lists for the year. That’s what happened to The Prophets as well. It could still pop up, but it feels like a big long shot at this point.
Zorrie, Laird Hunt
Pedigree: National Book Award finalist
I’m giving better odds to Laird Hunt’s Zorrie, which landed a spot on the National Book Awards shortlist for Fiction and has the kind of spare prose and quintessentially American focus the Pulitzer can be susceptible to. That gives it good odds to be at least a finalist here—and any book that gets in front of the Board has a chance at winning. It’s also a great book.
Intimacies, Katie Kitamura
Pedigree: National Book Award Longlist, NY Times Best Book of 2021
Intimacies felt like it was flying under the radar when it landed on the longlist for the National Book Award last year. Since then, it made the New York Times Book Review’s Top Ten Books of the Year list and has repeatedly been popping up in conversations about best books from last year—at least in my corner of BookTube. It didn’t make the ALA Notable list but I don’t think this is a title you can count out—besides, last year’s winner didn’t make the ALA Notable list either.
Hell of a Book, Jason Mott
Pedigree: ALA Notable Title, National Book Award winner
Historically, the National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer don’t line up (since the NBA launched as we know it in 1950, they have only aligned 8 times–and a ninth time the NBA went to Gravity’s Rainbow, which almost won the Pulitzer but didn’t. Long story). That doesn’t bode well for Hell of a Book, which won the National Book Award for Fiction last year. But you can’t count it out either. After all, just because it hasn’t happened often doesn’t mean that it can’t happen again.
The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, Joshua Cohen
Pedigree: NY Times 100 Notable
The hardest thing about predicting the Pulitzers is that sometimes, the award goes to a relatively obscure choice. How do you identify which relatively obscure book has a shot against the heavy hitters? Well, the Pulitzer sometimes enjoys quirky comedies that play with familiar forms, which means they could be enamored of The Netanyahus, a book that blends fiction and nonfiction and plays with the form of the campus novel. The publisher’s website describes it as “a wildly inventive, genre-bending comedy of blending, identity, and politics that finds Joshua Cohen at the height of his powers.” That sounds like it could be pretty good for the Pulitzer. I’m still calling it a long shot, though.
Gordo, Jaime Cortez
Pedigree: ALA Notable Title, Carnegie Medal longlist
The Pulitzer sometimes loves quirky humorous books, sometimes loves story collections, and sometimes loves serious issue books that shine a light on uncomfortable aspects of America’s past. Gordo would tick all three of those boxes—if it can manage to get on the jury’s shortlist, that is. But remember—it’s been a decade since a story collection won here.
The Five Wounds, Kirstin Valdez Quade
Pedigree: ALA Notable Title, Carnegie Medal shortlist
The Five Wounds has some of the qualities of a surprise winner for the Pulitzer, but it feels like a bit of a long shot compared to some of the other possibilities. Like Gordo, it has a sense of humor and, also like Gordo, it shines a light on a population not typically seen in literary awards. It also has the same pedigree as Gordo. But for some reason, I just don’t see it as something as likely to pull off an upset.
The Wrong End of the Telescope, Rabih Alameddine
Pedigree: ALA Notable Title, Pen/Faulkner Finalist
I’m tempted to call this book a lovable long shot but it has a lot of the trappings of an under-the-radar finalist for the Pulitzer–and anything submitted to the Board has a shot at winning no matter what the jury’s recommendation is. And there’s no denying that a book about a transgender doctor working with refugees could feel particularly urgent given current events. It still feels like a long shot but I won’t be surprised if it turns out this book made the final three once the Prize is announced.
The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles
The main recommendation for The Lincoln Highway here is that Towles has previously published two other books that have been well-liked by both critics and audiences: Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. Sometimes, the Pulitzer Board likes to reward authors who have quietly been putting in the work, but it feels like they might be just as likely to wait for Towles’ next book.
Infinite Country, Patricia Engel
Pedigree: Carnegie Medal longlist
It doesn’t have the crowded pedigree of, say, The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, but here’s a quick blurb that shows why this slim volume could surprise everyone by winning: “An urgent and lyrical novel about a Colombian family fractured by deportation, offering an intimate perspective on an experience that so many have endured—and are enduring right now.” That might have felt more like an urgent storyline to reward during the Trump presidency but it remains a hot-button issue. Can it pull off an upset? Only time will tell.
The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris
Pedigree: Booker Prize Longlist, Carnegie Medal longlist
Aside from its brief moment in the spotlight when it made the Booker longlist, it feels like The Sweetness of Water flew completely under the radar last year. Given that, it’s hard to consider that it has good odds at winning a Pulitzer—but this is an award that has a way of going with surprise choices, and there have definitely been Pulitzer winners that had a lower profile than The Sweetness of Water.
How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue
Pedigree: NY Times Best Book of 2021, Pen/Faulkner Award finalist
Here are some things in Mbue’s favor: this book was well-liked, this book is topical, and both of those things were also true about Mbue’s last novel, Behold the Dreamers. The fact that so many people also liked Mbue’s last book puts her in the same camp as Amor Towles. Technically, this book is set in Africa (at least mostly, according to the blurb), but Mbue immigrated to the United States and this feels like the level of not-actually being a specifically American story that the Board might be willing to overlook. But that’s an inexact science, to say the least.
Wayward, Dana Spiotta
Pedigree: New York Times 100 Notable
Sometimes the Pulitzer takes on heavy issues-driven novels and sometimes it likes a comical look at life as we live it in our present. If this year’s jury is feeling the latter, they could turn to Wayward, an amusing look at a middle-aged woman that is “about aging, about the female body, and about female difficulty–female complexity–in the age of Trump.” It would be a surprise win, but it would also make sense in a certain light.
My Year Abroad, Chang-Rae Lee
Pedigree: New York Times 100 Notable
Lee was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2011 for his novel The Surrendered, so he’s been in the conversation before–and his 1994 novel Native Speaker is considered by some to be a modern classic. While he’s still not the most known author on this list, that gives him a solid foundation that the Pulitzer Board may notice. They may also like that My Year Abroad is “an exploration of the surprising effects of cultural immersion—on a young American in Asia, on a Chinese man in America, and on an unlikely couple hiding out in the suburbs.” That fits the brief for the Pulitzer while also looking at global socio-political complexities.
No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood
Pedigree: Booker Prize finalist, NY Times Best Book of 2021, Women’s Prize shortlist
All I can say to the Pulitzer Board is this: please don’t do this to me. I will hate you if I have to try to read this book again. I did not like it. At all.
The War for Gloria, Atticus Lish
Pedigree: New York Times 100 Notable
I admit I had not heard of this book OR this author until I started looking up possibilities for this year’s Pulitzer. But Atticus Lish IS a PEN/Faulkner winner, for what that’s worth. And sometimes the Pulitzer likes to choose something more obscure. So while I still think it’s a long shot, I’m not sure you can count this book out. Especially since it deals with both a complicated family (which is a Pulitzer Prize mainstay) and the enormous costs of healthcare in this country (which makes it timely and urgent).
The (Other) You: Stories, Joyce Carol Oates
Chances: Lovable Longshot
Any time Joyce Carol Oates publishes a book, her name has to be considered as in contention for the Pulitzer. And she publishes a lot of books. She’s an American literary legend who has been a finalist for the prize FIVE TIMES without winning. She’s basically the Pulitzer’s Susan Lucci. And eventually, Susan Lucci won her Emmy. Still, it doesn’t feel like The (Other) You had much of a footprint. And given that Oates has another book coming out this year, The Babysitter, it feels like she has another chance coming. That’s the danger of being as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates is—it always feels like there’s another chance in the pipeline—even at her age. And while The Babysitter feels like it could be more serious for a Pulitzer jury, The (Other) You is a story collection—and Oates is considered a master of the short story form. But once again, it’s been a decade since a story collection won this award, so Oates’ odds remain murky.
Foregone, Russell Banks
Speaking of people who have been in the conversation for the prize before, Russell Banks has been a finalist twice, but not since 1999. In fact, Banks’ novel Continental Drift was the title the jury recommended for the Pulitzer in 1986, but the Board decided to go with Lonesome Dove, which was a finalist, instead. If this year’s Board wants to make up for that, they have a chance with Foregone. The trouble is that Banks seems like less of a contender than Oates and like The (Other) You, Foregone doesn’t have much of a footprint. But the pedigree and the subject matter (a dying filmmaker agrees to a final interview, setting off a story about “memory, betrayal, love, and the faint grace note of redemption”) make this a good candidate for a potential under-the-radar winner.
Potential Repeat Winners
NOTE: Look, I know people hate to acknowledge that prizes like this aren’t only decided on merit, but it is what it is. Things like politics or a desire to spread the wealth absolutely come into play with juries for awards of all stripes, and the Pulitzer is no exception. Here’s a little reality: since the first Fiction prize was awarded in 1918, only four authors have ever won two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction. It’s that rare. Even Toni Morrison only ever won one Pulitzer. So the following authors and books are in the running, sure, but each one has a steep hill to climb in order to get across the finish line simply because the author has already won before. Again: it is what it is.
Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead
Harlem Shuffle appears very high on the prediction list from the PPrize site based on the book’s success with critics groups, but I’m skeptical. Again: it’s extremely rare to win two Pulitzer Prizes—only four people have done it, and Colson Whitehead is already one of them. Winning three prizes has never been done before. That means there’s an exceptionally steep uphill battle for this book, which is also stylistically different from Whitehead’s last two (Pulitzer Prize-winning) novels, Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. Those felt like urgent stories about important topics, and while Harlem Shuffle is shining a light on a time and setting little seen in literary fiction, it doesn’t feel as hefty as those two.
The Sentence, Louise Erdrich
Pedigree: Carnegie Medal longlist
At the risk of becoming repetitive, let me reiterate that it’s extremely rare for someone to win two Pulitzer Prizes because like Harlem Shuffle, this book would have to topple an additional record in order to win: none of the four two-time winners did it in consecutive years, which would be the case for Erdrich. The Sentence is a pretty well-liked book but it feels like she would have a better shot for this if she hadn’t won for The Night Watchman last year. Erdrich is an author who absolutely COULD have two Pulitzers for Fiction (I would have rewarded her for Love Medicine and Plague of Doves if I were in charge but, you know, I’m not), but there are already people (myself included) grumbling that her win last year was a career achievement prize rather than a comment on the merits of The Night Watchman.
Bewilderment, Richard Powers
Pedigree: Booker Prize finalist, National Book Award longlist
The aforementioned PPrize site has Harlem Shuffle in second position and The Sentence in third, and wouldn’t you know it—they have ANOTHER previous winner coming in fourth with Bewilderment. Again, I think they’re over-estimating the odds for a previous winner, but who knows? I think I also underestimated Powers’ odds at winning when he triumphed for The Overstory, so maybe I’m making the same mistake by calling him a long shot for Bewilderment. It just feels like after being a Booker Prize finalist and on the longlist for the National Book Award, this book has already been all over the place. But it didn’t win either of those prizes, so maybe there’s a shot after all… if the Board can get over the fact that Powers has already won—and recently.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr
Pedigree: ALA Notable Title, National Book Award finalist, Carnegie Medal longlist
Doerr was a sure thing when he won for All the Light We Cannot See and his odds this year are a lot murkier—not just because it’s difficult for a previous winner to win again but because Cloud Cuckoo Land isn’t the type of book that usually wins this prize. Despite the way it flirts with genre conventions, there’s no denying that it was a favorite book of 2021 for a lot of people, which means it will definitely at least be in contention. To what level remains to be seen.
Oh William!, Elizabeth Strout
Of all the previous winners, this one feels like the biggest long shot. But then, I wouldn’t have predicted that Strout would win for Olive Kitteridge in the first place, so there’s a history there. Who knows, I could be wrong again. And while Oh William! feels like the previous winner with the lowest profile, Strout has leveraged her Pulitzer win to develop a sizable fanbase. If one of those fans is on the jury, don’t count her out.
There are 29 possible contenders for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Let me know if you think I missed anything or if I’m overstating the odds for any of these books. I would also love to hear what you think could win this year and what you wish were in the running.
We’ll see what happens in April!