I’ve been working on a project where I am reading every book that has won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and as I go through it, I’ve been very hesitant to cover recent Pulitzer Prize-winning books. The primary reason for this is quite simple: we don’t know what the ultimate legacy of a recent winner will be. Will it stand the test of time? Will the author be remembered? Will the book age well? We can’t possibly know, so it feels safer to stick with books and authors further in the past.
However, it now occurs to me that there’s a benefit to discussing these recent winners. One of the difficulties in looking at a winner from a hundred years ago is that I have to try to access the context of the time to try to understand why a particular book or author may have stood out as worthy of recognition. Sometimes, it’s easy to figure out–and although the process is challenging, I admit I kinda love it. Still, I’m trying to answer a question that is significantly easier with recent winners. Because when it comes to recent winners, I already have all of the context I need to understand the environment that allowed a particular book to stand out from the pack. I may not know what the ultimate legacy of a book will be, but I can speak to why it felt relevant in this moment.
Certainly, no recent winner is fresher in memory than the current reigning champ: Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. And so, as we prepare to crown a new winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I decided to do my deep dive on The Netanyahus to find out how this relatively obscure novel managed to defeat some major competition.
What Is The Netanyahus About?
Ruben Blum is a historian and the only Jewish faculty member at Corbin College, nestled in a small town in the state of New York. In the fall of 1959, he is beginning the second and final year of his probationary period as a professor at this institution. If he gets through this probationary period, he will likely secure tenure. It isn’t easy being the only Jewish person on campus but Ruben and his family seem uniquely fitted for the chore. In fact, Ruben’s department head praises Ruben for his ability to “blend in” with the rest of the faculty.
Things get bumpy when Ruben is informed that financial pressures are forcing his department head to hire a new professor–and that other cash-hungry departments of the college have required that the new history professor should be able to teach across disciplines. They are going to interview Benzion Netanyahu and Ruben is asked to escort Netanyahu while he is on campus in an inappropriate presumption that their shared religion makes Ruben the perfect man for the job.
It also puts Ruben in an uncomfortable predicament. Do his colleagues expect him to be their spy, to determine if Netanyahu is an “acceptable” Jew? If he ends up recommending that Netanyahu should be hired, will they suspect him of favoritism? What does it mean to be put in a position where you must gatekeep your own people?
When Netanyahu arrives in early 1960, he unexpectedly has his wife and three sons with him. Chaos ensues.
Is The Netanyahus Based on a True Story?
Indeed, it is. The members of the Netanyahu family (Benzion, Tzila, Jonathan, Benjamin, and Iddo) are real people.
Although he is a minor character of only ten years old in this novel, Benjamin Netanyahu is the most well-known of the bunch, being a controversial politician and longtime friend of Donald Trump (although their relationship got complicated during Trump’s presidency). His political fortunes have been a rollercoaster since The Netanyahus was published in June of 2021–the same month Benjamin Netanyahu was removed from his second stint as Prime Minister after years of corruption charges and indictments. The Netanyahus won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a year later, on May 9, 2022. By December of that year, Benjamin Netanyahu had made a staggering return to power and was sworn in as Prime Minister of Israel. Again. But The Netanyahus does precious little to interrogate who Benjamin Netanyahu is, so if you are interested, I encourage you to check out his wild Wikipedia page.
If you would rather focus on Benjamin’s father, Benzion (who is much more central to the plot of this book), he also has a detailed Wikipedia page.
The Netanyahus is also inspired by a story Harold Bloom told author Joshua Cohen about a time he was asked to host Benzion Netanyahu at Yale, and how Netanyahu unexpectedly showed up with his family in tow (yes, that Harold Bloom).
Why Did The Netanyahus Win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?
2021 was a year with no shortage of possible contenders for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers and The Trees by Percival Everett seemed particularly poised for victory, but there were many celebrated books from the year that could have easily claimed the title.
Instead, three largely unknown books were named as the finalists. In fact, the way I phrased it at the time was that the jury had chosen chaos. Two of the finalists (Monkey Boy by Francisco Goldman and Palmares by Gayl Jones) were completely unknown to me until the moment of the winner announcement–and I had only heard of The Netanyahus because PPrize, a site dedicated to Pulitzer Predictions, had included it in ninth place on their list of contenders.
In an ideal world, of course, the jury would simply select the books they truly believed to be the best of the year, and the Pulitzer Board in turn would choose the most worthy title among those as the winner. But we do not live in an ideal world. Out here in reality, we have to deal with the fact that any definition of what is the best is subjective. My criteria or definition for best may be wildly different from yours. And that’s okay. But it means that there is no true “best book” for any given year.
Of course, one could assume that The Netanyahus stood out from the competition because of its aforementioned (and short-lived) relevance to real-life politics. I do not think this is the case.
Given all that, I have two theories for how The Netanyahus defied the odds. My first theory stems from a conspiracy theory about how Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction are chosen. Before we get into it, I want to say that I do not like conspiracy theories in general, and, like most conspiracy theories: I don’t think this one is particularly credible. Most of the time.
There are people who believe that Pulitzer juries deliberately stack the deck to favor the novel they would like to see win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Because the jury does not actually choose the winner for the Pulitzer Prize. They only select the finalists. It used to be that the jury would make a recommendation to the Pulitzer Board, but this may not be the case any longer as Michael Cunningham indicated that he and his fellow jurors were not allowed to make a case for any particular book when they submitted their finalists for 2012. The Pulitzer Board either selects a winner from the finalists, asks for another option (it isn’t revealed if this happens, but the only recent year with more than three finalists was 2015, when All the Light We Cannot See prevailed), or decides not to award a prize at all (this last option is unlikely to happen again anytime soon after the controversy that came when no prize was given in 2012). Basically, the jury can only actually control which books the Board is able to select from.
The idea, then, is that a jury will try to select two ringers to go alongside the book they would like to see win. It’s difficult, though, to go through the winners and finalists year by year to find an example where it looks like this may have happened. The closest I could guess is that in 2011 there were two books that seemed to be frontrunners for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. But only Goon Squad was named as a finalist, which may have cleared its path to victory. So the only case I can possibly point to where a jury stacked the deck, they would have done so by deliberately omitting Freedom as a possible contender.
Looking at the three finalists for 2022, there is definitely an odd book out: Palmares. Both of the other contenders, Monkey Boy and The Netanyahus, were written by men, blur the line between fact and fiction, and have themes related to the Jewish religion. On the one hand, and this will play into my second theory, maybe that shows that the jury had a preference for this type of book. On the other hand, maybe the fact that two of the books are so similar (at least in brief overviews) means that they were deliberately chosen to allow the third book to stand out.
Although I hadn’t heard of Gayl Jones or Palmares when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced, she is absolutely someone a jury of literary people would be invested in. She was discovered by Toni Morrison when Morrison was still working as an editor, and that affiliation has become part of Gayl Jones’ lore. She was subsequently praised by literary giants such as James Baldwin and John Updike. But when a tumultuous marriage ended in her husband’s suicide in 1998, Jones withdrew from public life. Palmares was her first published work in 22 years. But her return to the literary world was fairly muted. It was her inclusion as a Pulitzer Prize finalist that put a spotlight on her and gave her the degree of literary celebrity she is currently enjoying.
As such, it would not at all surprise me to learn that the Pulitzer jury for 2022 was actually trying to stack the deck for Gayl Jones but it backfired because the Pulitzer Board selected a different finalist. It would kind of make sense if none of the buzzier, more lauded, or more bestselling books of the year had made it as a finalist if the jury was trying to make a case for Gayl Jones. And if this was the intention of the jury, they can feel good about themselves because even though she didn’t win, they did successfully bring Gayl Jones into the spotlight.
My second theory for how The Netanyahus won could actually exist hand in hand with the first theory (that is to say, they could technically both be true). Because even if the jury was trying to stack the deck for Palmares, something made The Netanyahus stand out to the Pulitzer Board instead. And that something could be that The Netanyahus is a novel about discrimination against Jewish people that was published at a time when anti-Semitism is, unfortunately, on the rise in the United States.
One of the most interesting things about working my way through this Pulitzer Prize Project of mine is asking myself two questions: why this book? and why was it important to recognize at that time? The Grapes of Wrath contextualized what many Americans had recently survived in The Dust Bowl. Dragon’s Teeth galvanized Americans against the Nazi menace. The Overstory is an environmental epic published at a time when it has become critical to address climate change. And The Netanyahus grapples with the unseemly and often hidden history of anti-Semitism (particularly in the United States)–giving weight to an alarming problem where the current political landscape in this country is leading to a rise in anti-Semitic activity.
Selecting a book that grapples with Jewish identity, history, representation, and discrimination throughout history shines a light on an ongoing problem–a problem that, like racism, many Americans would prefer to believe doesn’t exist anymore.
I like the subtle political message behind rewarding The Netanyahus, and I do think that’s an urgent issue. I just wish I liked the vessel for that message better. And I wish it actually did just one of the things I listed as a reason it felt like a book with an urgent political message for the Pulitzer Board to hold up.
Is This Novel Any Good?
… which is a perfect segue to a conversation about what I thought of the novel (way to go, me!).
Look, I don’t want to mince words here: I did not like this book at all. In fact, I had begun to actively resent it by the end and I wanted to throw it across the room when I finished. I didn’t, though.
There are elements of an interesting novel in the first hundred pages when the focus is on Ruben and his role at Corbin College. The scene where Ruben meets with his department head near the opening of the novel is firing on all cylinders: it’s a scene that reveals a lot while moving the plot forward, it has thematic resonance, and it manages to be almost scathingly funny (in a sly way, not a haha way). It makes me wish that this was an actual campus novel about the only Jewish faculty member in a small New York town in 1959. All of the parts of this book that I actually like are about how Ruben fits into the world of Corbin College. How he’s asked to dress up as Santa at a Christmas party (and how it’s explained to him as only fair that he dress as Santa so the people who actually celebrate Christmas can be free to enjoy the party). Ruben must endure countless oblivious indignities just to get by in the world, and The Netanyahus is at its best when we get to casually watch this in action.
Unfortunately, Joshua Cohen is getting in his own way even in this early section. There are long passages with Ruben’s thoughts on history and religion. We get a lot of backstory about Ruben’s education (both secular and religious) as well as the history of his parents and his in-laws (interestingly, the clash between what these sets of parents represent seems more interesting to Cohen than Ruben’s own wife, who remains a thinly defined character throughout). The text is so unnecessarily eloquent that it quickly begins to feel like reading a thesis that a student labored over with a thesaurus so it would sound more intelligent. I am not someone with a superb vocabulary, but I know quite enough to get by–and yet, I had to look up many words in this novel. And every single time, there was a much simpler and more direct way of saying whatever it was that Cohen wanted to say.
I’m willing to believe that these grievances are deliberate on Cohen’s part. He’s speaking to us as a history professor, so this is someone who would naturally turn much of his daily life into an extension of his work. This is someone whose reputation depends on showing his intelligence in how he expresses himself, so maybe he doesn’t even realize that the language he uses is showy to the point of madness. The problem is that after being so frustrated by this novel, I don’t have the stamina to read another of Cohen’s books to determine if this is just who he is, or if it’s just who Ruben is.
Still, if the novel stayed in this realm, the realm of the campus novel, it would be everything that it was praised for being. But the title of this book is The Netanyahus, so they’re bound to show up at some point.
To be fair, though, The Netanyahus actually goes off the rails right before the titular family shows up halfway through the novel. The derailing begins with a dream sequence that ominously foreshadows the plot development to come (something I will always be primed to despise): Ruben’s daughter, Judith, enacts an overly elaborate scheme to get her grandfather to break her nose so badly that she will get the nose job she has been wanting for so long.
As an aside: the ways in which different people develop different forms of self-loathing about something they worry will out them as someone who isn’t part of what they see as ‘normal society’ is endlessly fascinating. Novels like Nella Larsen’s Passing or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye are based on these forms of self-loathing, and they are essential. We need these stories because we need to puncture them. A novel about the only Jewish faculty member of a college in 1959 with a daughter who is obsessed with “fixing” her nose (the nose being a central stereotype in anti-Semitic caricatures) would be a great addition to this canon. If only Judith made any sense as a character–and if only Cohen had any interest at all in completing the thought he presents to readers.
It’s at this point that The Netanyahus takes a sharp turn into becoming an outlandish cartoon. The circumstances of Judith getting her nose broken defy credulity. The reactions to it are bizarre and nonsensical. Even more bizarrely, Cohen packages it as a period to a debate Judith had waged with her grandfather over the subject of fairness, and it does not compute. At all.
And then Cohen leans even harder into the cartoonish vibe when the Netanyahus finally arrive in a fever dream of entitlement, poop jokes, rudeness, misbehaving children, and smelly diapers. After this overly comical introduction, we begin to follow along as Ruben leads Netanyahu through his engagements on campus. Really, this is just an excuse for Cohen to allow Netanyahu to take over the philosophical musings as he goes about the interview process. Cohen ends chapters at moments designed to punctuate a point Netanyahu makes–and because he doesn’t give any character room to disagree with Netanyahu, it feels designed to highlight him and his perspective.
Ruben resents Netanyahu’s entitlement and occasionally dismisses Netanyahu’s conclusions, but he ends up questioning his own beliefs far more than he interrogates Netanyahu’s. It feels like the book is structured so the reader will do the same.
So what is Cohen doing? What is his intent in introducing a real-life figure and allowing him to dump his philosophy on the reader? What is the point of making vague references to the controversial future of that man’s son if Cohen would clearly rather not engage with what that future politician will do? If this were indeed intended to be Ruben reflecting on these encounters from a time when he knows what happens to both Benzion and his son, Benjamin, then wouldn’t you think that he would attempt to reconcile what happened then with what he knows now?
Clearly, this is more about Benzion than it is about Benjamin. Nowadays, thanks to his son’s stature, Benzion is seen as a figurehead of Israel. But he enjoys that position strictly because his son happens to be Israel’s off-and-on Prime Minister. It’s not something he necessarily earned on his own. Here’s how Cohen explains this in an interview:
I also wanted to explore what it meant to be left out of history, in a strange way. With Benzion Netanyahu, there was this seething resentment of a person who had “deserved more” and thought that he should have had a role in the early state and he was a man born to lead. But, during the most important decade in modern Jewish history, when the State of Israel is being founded and Jews are being slaughtered in Europe, he’s in America. There is a certain kind of return of the repressed when the father who is kept out of history raises the son who must return and destroy. A lot of these were the questions that were stirred up under Trump, and the idea of writing about these things directly was somewhere between boring and too difficult. So I felt like this “minor negligible event” had all of these possibilities.‘The Netanyahus’ analyzes the famous family through the story of one night
This is all well and good, but the text itself doesn’t give you that. It relies on the reader to know who the Netanyahu family is. It relies on the reader to apply the greater context of what is happening in this novel. Maybe I’m cynical, but I don’t believe many Americans have the level of understanding required to connect the dots about the Netanyahu family, the formation of Israel, or the current political state of Israel to put all of that into proper perspective. I know I don’t. And since Cohen steadfastly refuses to guide the reader, his novel ends up being nothing more than a sounding board. A reader will hear nothing but the echo of their own opinion coming back at them.
Just for good measure, Ruben comes home nine pages before the book ends to discover what may be a sexual assault but also might not be. It’s like setting off a grenade right before a novel ends and not telling the reader who lives or who dies.
The only part of the book where Cohen appears to attempt to put the Netanyahu family in context is in an afterword, where he still doesn’t do much to frame why he thought this was a relevant story to tell. You have to look to interviews for that.
This afterword is also insane to me because in it, Cohen offers teases of other stories Harold Bloom shared with him during their brief connection before Bloom’s death. He then claims that the character of Ruben Blum is not a fictionalized version of Harold Bloom (nor is Ruben’s wife a fictionalized version of Harold’s wife). He also bizarrely informs the reader that there is a real-life reference point for the character of Judith, then says that he agreed to hide their identity since they wanted no part of this novel. But he shares details about this person’s identity which means anyone who really wanted to dig into the matter could probably find out. He also reveals that they added him to their newsletter about homeopathic remedies and includes the full text of a truly bizarre email they sent Cohen in response to a copy of the manuscript for The Netanyahus.
This feels very mean-spirited to me. It’s not essential information for a reader–especially if Cohen had agreed to keep their identity secret. And even worse: in that email that he publishes, the real-life Judith identifies as nonbinary, but Cohen has been referring to them with female pronouns. So not only is Cohen providing us with a lot of information he didn’t need to give us despite promising the person anonymity, he’s been (probably deliberately) misgendering them the whole time.
Look, getting back to the novel itself, I just don’t think this is a text that succeeds at what it wants to do. There are elements of important things, but ultimately, Cohen does not say anything about them. There are teases for important questions, but ultimately, Cohen does not attempt to answer them. And while I don’t think a novel necessarily needs to provide answers, I do think it should have the courage of its convictions.
If you come to The Netanyahus looking for a polemic about anti-Semitism, you will be disappointed. If you come to The Netanyahus looking for a campus novel, you will be disappointed. If you come to The Netanyahus looking for a deeper understanding of a troublesome political figure currently having an impact on our world, you will be disappointed. If you come to The Netanyahus looking for reflections on the Jewish identity, you’ll find them–but I can’t imagine you’ll leave satisfied.
At the end of the day, there are elements of all those things to be found in The Netanyahus, although I think you have to reach for some of them. It feels like people have grafted specific meanings onto a novel that just doesn’t support them.
So what are we doing here?
Who Is Joshua Cohen?
Born in 1980, Joshua Cohen grew up in Atlantic City in New Jersey and studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music. The Netanyahus was Cohen’s sixth novel and, thanks to the Pulitzer Prize, his first to become widely known–although he is no stranger to acclaim. His novel Witz was named a Best Book of 2010 by The Village Voice and Four New Messages was selected by The New Yorker as a best book of 2012. He has also worked as an editor and translator.
During a 2018 interview, Harold Bloom had this to say to Cohen:
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth, and quite possibly your Book of Numbers are the four best books by Jewish writers in America. Your Moving Kings is a strong and rather hurtful book, but that helps validate it. Book of Numbers, however, is shatteringly powerful. I cannot think of anything by anyone in your generation that is so frighteningly relevant and composed with such continuous eloquence. There are moments in it that seem to transcend our impasse.Stories as Prayer: A Conversation Between Joshua Cohen and Harold Bloom
Are There Adaptations or Sequels?
Not at this time.
Is The Netanyahus the Great American Novel?
Time will determine whether or not The Netanyahus has a lasting impact, but I feel pretty confident assuming that it will not. And even if The Netanyahus is largely forgotten fifty years from now, I feel equally confident asserting that this would not be a criminally overlooked entry into the Great American canon.
What Was The Netanyahus‘ Competition for the Pulitzer?
You can refer back to the section about why The Netanyahus won for more details, but the other finalists were Monkey Boy by Francisco Goldman and Palmares by Gayl Jones. As discussed in that section, I have two theories for why The Netanyahus edged them out.
What I can’t explain is how the jury arrived at these three finalists in a year that was loaded with possibilities. I’m not a Jonathan Franzen fan but many people who are referred to Crossroads as his best work yet. Robert Jones, Jr. had a stunning debut with The Prophets. Maggie Shipstead was a Booker Finalist for Great Circle. And that’s just a sample of what 2021 had to offer the fiction world.
If I were in charge, my finalists would have been The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers, The Trees by Percival Everett, and Zorrie by Laird Hunt.
Should The Netanyahus Have Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?
In case you can’t tell by now, I do not think The Netanyahus was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I wouldn’t even put it anywhere near the top ten books of 2021. It’s a frustrating, unsatisfying reading experience–and again, I don’t think it adequately does the things it is frequently credited with doing.
Frankly, I find it ludicrous that neither The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois nor The Trees were in the mix. And while I have only read half of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois at the time I am writing this and not a page of The Trees yet, I firmly believe that either one of them would have made a better winner than The Netanyahus.
Personally, of the two I would lean toward The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. I love how Honorée Fannone Jeffers frames her novel, so I’ll let her do it: “I describe this story as a kitchen table epic. You know, when we think of epic in the Western tradition, it’s always the heroic feats of white men… That story’s already been told. I didn’t want to tell that story. I wanted to tell the story of heroic Black women and dark-skinned Black women.”
And selfishly, I think Percival Everett will be in the mix for the Pulitzer Prize again. Who knows how long it may take to get another novel from Honorée Fannone Jeffers? I would have given it to her.
Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives
His Family (1918) • Now in November (1935) • Gone With the Wind (1937) • The Grapes of Wrath (1940) • Lonesome Dove (1986) • Less (2018) • The Netanyahus (2022) • TIE: Trust and Demon Copperhead (2023)