What does it take for a woman to win the Pulitzer for Fiction?

It's been 5 years since a woman won America's highest fiction prize.

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced. This is a special day! It is the crowning of the year’s best novel. The Prize for Fiction is the highest literature award in America. This year, it went to Richard Powers’ The Overstory. I have not read this book, but have heard it is good and have it on my shelf of books I will one day read. That is not what we are here to talk about. What we’re here to talk about is how the Pulitzer has awarded its prize historically! The finalists for this years prize were Tommy Orange’s There, There and Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers.

Just as some backup for Kiefer’s point. The New York Times picked 48 works of fiction for its 100 Notable Books of 2018. Of them, 27 were by women (56%). I am sure The Overstory is a good book, and it choice as this year’s winner probably would not feel as dismissive of women’s work if the Pulitzer Prize committee hadn’t awarded the last 5 Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction to men. No woman has won the prize since Donna Tartt in 2014 for The Goldfinch. In fact, since 2000 the data looks like this: 13 men, 6 women, one year of no award. That’s — if you’ve been paying attention — awfully close to our ONE-THIRD RULE THEORY.

So I did the data for you, and guess what? It fits:

But unlike the data I gathered on women’s books on the bestselling chart, the trend in representation of women as winners of the Pulitzer prize does not seem to be getting better. The only decades in which women have been at or above 50% of the awardees were: The 1920s and the 1930s. Since then, in no decade have women won more than 40% of the prizes. In the 2010s, women made up a paltry 22% of awardees.

Sure, you could say “well maybe women’s literature has been bad in this decade.” But that’s bullshit.

In the 2010s, 22 books were announced as non-winning finalists for the pulitzer prize. 12 books by men. 10 books by women. That means 45% of books that were finalists for the pulitzer prize in the last decade were written by women.

As another point of comparison: In the 2010s, 50% of the National Book Award winners were women. So clearly this isn’t a situation of quality of work so much as it is, yet again, a question of who gets to be the gatekeepers of award winning literature. I will now take a moment to link to this thread about the allegations of sexual assault against the novelist Junot Diaz who sits on the board of the Pulitzer Prize committee and say no more about that for now.

I am sure that The Overstory is a good book. Plenty of people who I respect have enjoyed it. This feeling that women’s work is being ignored by the highest awarding body in the country doesn’t have to do with Richard Powers’ book. It has to do with a committee that allows an accused abuser to remain on its board, with women’s exclusion from the list, and with a decade where the written history of our best novels has underrepresented the excellent work done by women.

In 1957, the Pulitzer Prize committee decided not to give a prize for Fiction. The book announced to have been submitted by the committee and then denied was written by a woman. On Friday, we’ll talk about it!