7 Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelists
Established in newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer’s will, the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917, with the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel following a year later (it went to Ernest Poole for His Family, and in the 1940s, the prize was renamed to award fiction in general). Since then, such authors as Alice Walker, Willa Cather, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, and Toni Morrison have won; here are a few other authors whose books have nabbed the prestigious prize.
1. Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri co-wrote books with a friend during recess as a 7 year old, but didn’t truly begin writing until she was in graduate school, fitting it in between schoolwork and classes. It was during those years that the phrase that would become the title of her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, came to her: She had run into an acquaintance who was working in a doctor’s office, serving as a translator between the doctor and his patients. “As I walked back home,” she later recalled, “the phrase interpreter of maladies popped into my head as a way of describing what this person was doing. It lingered long enough for me to jot the phrase down on a piece of paper.”
After facing years of rejection of her short stories, Interpreter of Maladies was published in 1999—and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. “I always thought of the Pulitzer as something people won when they were deep into their careers,” Lahiri said. Her father advised her to “accept it graciously, keep it in its place, and move on.”
2. Colson Whitehead
Author of nine books, Whitehead was nominated for his first Pulitzer in 2002. He won his first Pulitzer in 2017 for The Underground Railroad, a book the jury called “a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.” He won again in 2020 for The Nickel Boys. He’s one of only four authors to have won two Pulitzers in Fiction. John Updike—another double winner—said that Whitehead’s writing “does what writing should do. It refreshes our sense of the world.”
3. Edith Wharton
The jury’s initial pick for the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel was Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but it was rejected by the trustees for not meeting the criteria of the prize (namely, that the work be “wholesome”). The award instead went to Edith Wharton for her 12th novel, The Age of Innocence, making her the first woman to win a Pulitzer.
Wharton wrote in her autobiography that in Innocence, she had found “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America ... it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”
4. Jeffrey Eugenides
The Pulitzer jury called Eugenides’s 2002 novel, Middlesex—about intersex man Cal Stephanides, who, due to a genetic mutation called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, is assigned female at birth—“a grand, utterly original fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender, and the deep, untidy promptings of desire.” When the book was published in 2002, Eugenides told The Guardian that he wanted to write a medically accurate portrayal of an intersex person, “rather than a fanciful creature like Tiresias or Orlando who could shift in a paragraph.”
The author said he had received many letters of thanks from intersex people, but the book wasn’t without controversy: Emi Koyama, director of the Intersex Initiative, wrote in 2007 that while “the book Middlesex is beautifully written,” Eugenides “is definitely not an expert about intersex issues, and he did not meet with any intersex person before writing the novel.” The book’s subject matter inevitably led to the author getting asked questions about intersex in interviews—questions which Koyama said “need to be directed toward intersex advocates who are actually familiar with the topic, and not some novelist with limited knowledge about the issue.”
5. Junot Díaz
It took Junot Díaz 11 years to write his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about an overweight Dominican boy living in New Jersey dealing with a family curse. Writing the book may have taken awhile, but it paid off: Díaz won the Pulitzer for Oscar Wao in 2008.
6. John Updike
John Updike, the author of more than 25 novels, won Pulitzers for two books in his series that follows ex-athlete Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom: Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), the latter of which ends with Rabbit’s death. In 1997, Updike described ending the series as “kind of a relief. … It wasn’t as sad for me as perhaps for some of my readers. Writers are cruel. Authors are cruel. We make, and we destroy.” The character of Rabbit, Updike said, “opened me up. As a writer, I could see things through him that I couldn’t see by any other means.”
7. John Kennedy Toole
The manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces was found by John Kennedy Toole’s mother after he died by suicide in 1969. Determined to get the novel published, she approached a number of publishers; finally, she went to author Walker Percy with the manuscript—and would not give up until he read it. As he later recalled, “the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript.” He’d hoped to read a few pages and be able to put it aside. But that was not the case: “I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.” The novel was finally published in 1980, 11 years after Toole’s death, and won the Pulitzer the next year.