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Is the Pulitzer Prize guilty of claims of a “Liberal Legacy”?

BySarah O'Hara

May 7, 2018

On Tuesday, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less: A Novel was announced as the 2018 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction, causing some surprise in literary circles. Less: A Novel is a humorous light-hearted story in which its protagonist Arthur Less embarks upon a desperate around-the-world trip to avoid attending a former boyfriend’s wedding and, on the surface, seems less obviously ‘literary’ than the other shortlisted novels. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot tells the story of a second-generation Turkish-American student coming of age in the newly globalised 1990s, whilst Hernan Diaz’s In The Distance reworks Western tropes to explore the multiculturalism of America’s historical westward expansion.

Youth, globalisation, immigration, what it means to be American – the themes of these two shortlisted novels are familiar from past Pulitzer winners, such as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Viet Thanh Nyugen’s The Sympathiser. However, though it may be a less obvious choice, Greer’s novel still seems to fall under the broad umbrella categorisation which is so often used to criticise the Pulitzer Prize: liberalism.

The two previous Pulitzer Prize-winning novels both have liberal outlooks or concerns. They are again concerned with what it means to be American, this time by confronting America’s brutal past as a way of illuminating the present. The Underground Railroad combines a fictional escape network with the real horrors of slavery, whilst Viet Thanh Nyugen’s work explores the legacy of the Vietnam War and clashing Vietnamese and American loyalties.

They are the stories of marginalised African-American and Vietnamese voices, just as Less: A Novel focuses on a protagonist who sometimes feels as if he is “the first homosexual ever to grow old”. The nuances of aging as a gay man in the modern world reveals aspects of American lives that most heterosexual readers would be unfamiliar with.

It is the Pulitzer’s favouring of this type of fiction – the voices of the marginalised, often disregarded and misunderstood – that leads to claims about its “liberal legacy”. This was the phrase used in a 2007 TribLive article, which suggested that the “path to prizes and prestige” comes solely from advancing a liberal agenda.

Pulitzer prizes are not alone in receiving this criticism: it is levelled at all literary awards. The politics of the judges, the novels and the authors are all routinely scrutinised, and the consensus is often that they are left-leaning. Defenders of literary prizes often argue that, far from representing any hidden political agenda, the outlook and concerns of prize-winning novels or authors are simply representative of the traditionally left-wing arts.

However, there are other, more structural reasons for the “liberal legacy” which follows the Pulitzer and other prizes. When a book is shortlisted for a major prize, an enormous amount of expense is accrued for the publisher. Big publishing houses thus tend to dominate the prizes, evidenced through the publishers of the three recent Pulitzer winners: Little, Brown and Company, Doubleday and Grove Press. On top of this, the Pulitzer, like most literary prizes, judges only single books. Instead of looking at the scope and variety of a writer’s whole career, prizes are focused on books with immediate, contemporary appeal.

The combination of established, big-name publishers and the need for contemporary themes or outlooks produce shortlists that seem remarkably similar. It is less of a political agenda and more of a rigid, restrictive structure that thus produces so many similar winners of literary prizes which appear to have the same agenda. As long as big publishers and of-the-moment concerns continue to dominate the Pulitzer, and other prizes, it seems that its so-called liberal legacy will continue.


Image: Nessguide via Flickr. 

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