The Pulitzer Project

Last month I set out to read one Pulitzer Prize (PP) and one National Book Award  (NBA) each month.  My habitual reading has not included the books deemed the best writing in its genre.  Since it is common advice by successful writers to read the best to improve one’s own writing,  I began with fiction hoping to learn something and more, to enjoy reading great works.

November I read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011 PP fiction)  and Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (2010 NBA.)  For December I will read Tinkers by Paul Harding (2010 PP fiction winner) and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009 NBA.)

Check back this next week for my experience reading Egan and Gordon’s novels. I will create a separate page for the Pulitzer Prize and for the National Book Award discussions.  If you have read any of these books please leave me your impressions, thoughts, and reactions to my reviews.

One thing:  the first two books jolted me from my usual reading expectations—each was very hard to read.  A Visit from the Goon Squad challenged my resolve to carry out the project.  Lord of Misrule did, too, but for different reasons.  I realized its similarity to Mark Twain’s stories that plop the reader into a world, time and characters without an instruction manual.  A Visit from the Goon Squad brings particularities about our culture (digital divide among generations, fractured nature of experience) and historical period into focus.  Lord of Misrule could be just about anytime in horse racing.

The uphill experience of reading the first two novels in itself taught me that true creativity is disruptive by its very nature.  John Steinbeck asserted that writers should strive in their writing to uplift the human spirit.  I wasn’t sure that these books did that for me.  I will have to reread them.

6 thoughts on “The Pulitzer Project

    1. The public library? For the most sustainable way of knowing? Just nudging, I really think the Kindle is offering some amazing new services like a $79 per year lending library with movies, books, and documentaries thrown in for free.

  1. Larry Chamblin

    This is a terrible idea. OK, not really terrible, but you may be on a path to more frustration than enlightenment. A few years ago I undertook a similar endeavor and soon went back to my usual way of choosing books that grabbed my interest, often because they had themes and settings I could relate to more than any other qualities. Today, as an old English major, I feel guilty for not always being up to date in my fiction reading, though the New Yorker and Harper’s keep me relatively contemporary, at least in terms of short fiction. Though I still choose books that will be intellectually challenging, I have lost patience with books that seem to offer only such challenges without my any of the pleasures that fiction can offer at its best. Maybe it’s my age; there is only time for books that are enjoyable, preferably at a level deeper than the most popular page-turners. One cannot have spent weeks in seminars discussing the novels of Henry James, the plays of Shakespeare, or the poems of Milton without this intensely literary experience forever imprinting a sense of higher purpose on all one’s reading endeavors.

    Many years ago, a friend of mine in DC expressed his dislike of so much of current fiction. I reminded him of James Fenimore Cooper’s reaction to the novels of Walter Scott: “Why, I can write a better novel than this.” Said his wife: “Well, James, do it then!” What followed were the leather-stocking novels, that were indeed better, at least to this American reader, than the stuffy Scott books. So, I said to Dick Dabney: “Why not try your hand at a novel?” He went on to write and get published three novels, which were interesting to his friends. But those friends did not equal a profitable readership.

    My recent reading has included Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” and James Howard Kunstler’s “The Witch of Hebron”–the latter a sequel to “A World Made by Hand.” Yet the reading of these books, which explore deeper issues of our ecological mismanagement, is often interrupted, as it were, by a compulsion to read Bill McKibben, Lester Brown, Gus Speth, David Orr and others who more directly force us to face this mismanagement and even to seek solutions. And isn’t that one of the differences between fiction and nonfiction: there is no “solution” for the characters of “Freedom.” At best, maybe some new level of understanding and even messy resolution, but certainly no actual solution.

    I sometimes struggle to find balance between my political and environmental drivers (where I hope, probably naively, for solutions) and those competing impulses, to find aesthetic and literary pleasure in places unconnected to the world of our political and environmental failures in American in 2011. On a recent trip to Washington State and British Columbia, I brought along Don DeLillo’s “Americana” as a kind of bridge between these failures and a more symbolic American nightmare of a few decades ago. But my effort to put fiction forward in my imaginative life was futile, as time allowed for little reading. And then on the ferry to Victoria, I bought a book with the title “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.” But I still have “Americana” and a couple of novels by Willa Cather on my nightstand.

    So, Susan, after all, I say: Stick to your plan if you can. Or abandon your plan and find another one. Just read on where your instinct leads you.

  2. I took up a similar undertaking this past year in an effort to broaden my reading experience. While the challenge has certainly endeavored me to read books that I would normally pass by, I don’t feel as though I have read more literary works this year than in years past. In fact, I felt much the opposite. You can essentially cross reference these winners with the NY Times Bestseller list, which is more a representation of popular opinion of those who may or may not be well read. With so many books being published each year, there are hundreds of literary books that never appear in the Times, win a Pulitzer or National Book Award, especially if they have been written by a female author. Reading is essentially a subjective experience. While there are certainly established standards in writing, what makes a work literary vs. standard fiction fair is much up to debate in my opinion (See Judy Blume). However, I encourage anyone who is in a reading rut to consult these lists as a way of reigniting their passion for reading.

  3. Thank you both for these thoughtful entries. Its interesting how reading to all of us is an essential life function – the search for truth or understanding or the need to know how something works or doesn’t. My reading of a Pulitzer and National Book Award each month perhaps will be an investigation of their special contribution to writing.

    For example, I just finished Tinkers by Paul Harding, and Larry, in that marvelous interwoven story upon story of father and son I think we may have an answer to what is needed to make a world by hand. You must read this gem. Take it from a veteran nonfiction reader of environmental or nature genre, these stories are islands where relationships are the focus, and come to think of it, that is the whole issue, no?

  4. B'tina

    Once again, you have embarked upon a very ambitious journey! I do hope these selections will ‘uplift your spirit’ but also bring you pleasure and insight. I wish you well and agree with Larry, stick with your plan if you can or abandon it and follow your instincts . . . you have our permission to change your plan if it doesn’t fulfill your expectations; meanwhile, I will look for Tinkers at my library. Thanks.

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