The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is the most coveted literary award that a novelist or short story writer can claim in the United States. Its prestige is followed by the National Book Award, and the only analog is the international Nobel Prize (an award which considers an author’s full corpus rather than a single book). Each year thousands of books are sold simply because they win the Pulitzer, or have merely been nominated for the Pulitzer.
The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 (the first novel was awarded in 1918). In the early days, publishers and writers were welcome to nominate any American novel simply by sending in a letter and a copy of their book to the Pulitzer Advisory Board. The three-person jury would then whittle down the top three candidates and send them to Columbia University, where the Pulitzer Advisory Board would either approve or decline a winner (or in some cases they would entirely ignore the Jury’s recommendations -the 1970s were a notorious decade for the Pulitzer Advisory Board entirely disregarding the Jury’s submissions).
Around 1934, Juries were asked to submit three titles to the Pulitzer Advisory Board, with one preference jointly selected as the award winner. At that time, Juries were generally composed of academics with at least a certain degree of professional interest in fiction, but the jurors were rarely experts in contemporary literary fiction. From 1917 to 1974, only 5 of the 155 jurors who served over that time had any experience as a professional novelist.
Today, the Pulitzer Prize is the culmination of a year-long process beginning early in the year with the appointment of 102 distinguished judges who serve on 20 separate Juries, such as the Novel Jury, which was changed into the “Fiction Jury” in 1947. In our day, the three person Fiction Jury changes each year to offer a fresh perspective (and deliberations are kept strictly secret), but generally the Fiction Jury consists of an academic, a fiction writer, and a critic. They each wade through boxes full of Pulitzer submissions (anyone and everyone can submit a novel for consideration as long as they pay the $50 fee). Each juror on the Fiction Jury is then asked to make three nominations from many novel submissions. These three recommendations are individually ranked by each of the Jurors and the process for selection involves a submission of three “finalists” by the three person fiction Jury to the Pulitzer Advisory Board, whose eighteen members are largely “journalists and academics.” The award is overseen by Columbia University, the beneficiary of Mr. Pulitzer’s initial bequest.
The three novels that are collectively selected by the Fiction Jury are then sent to the Pulitzer Advisory Board without ranking the finalists, and the Jury makes no recommendation to the Board regarding which title is preferred (if any). The Board is free to select any of the three finalists, or to ask the Jury for a fourth finalist, or alternatively to arbitrarily select any of the other eligible titles (though the Board has not taken this last step—when there are no finalists chosen by the Board, as occurred in 2012, the Board simply does not to issue a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction despite the Jury’s recommendations).
In 2012 we got a closer glimpse into the selection process. As noted above, it was a rare and infamous year when no awardees were announced for the Pulitzer. Michael Cunningham, the famous novelist of The Hours, shared some secrets of the Pulitzer selection process with The New Yorker, and Salon literary critic and former Pulitzer Fiction Jury member, Laura Miller, also shared her perspective in Salon.
The formal announcement of the prizes, made each April, states that awards are made by the President of Columbia University upon the recommendation of the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board. Ultimate authority rests with Columbia University.
Contrary to popular mythology, the famous Pulitzer gold medal (pictured below) is only awarded to the news organization who wins in the “Public Service” category. It was created in 1918 and features the profile of Benjamin Franklin with honoris causa awarded by Columbia University scribed on one side, and the other shows a hard-working printer with the words: “For disinterested and meritorious public service rendered by an American newspaper during the year….”
Three great resources on the Pulitzer Prize: John Hohenberg’s The Pulitzer Prizes (1974), a history of all prizes; The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look (1981) by W. A. Stuckey; and Heinz and Erika Fischer’s Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (2007).