How Are the Pulitzer Prizes Awarded?

In an October 24, 1916 announcement for the newly created “Columbia Prizes,” The New York Times noted that “the two prizes which will attract the most attention will be those of $1,000 each for the best American novel of American life and the best American play.” The Times further noted that: “There is an increasing number of Americans of both sexes who write remarkably well, and have the knack of plot and characterization… The Columbia Prizes should stimulate American literary endeavor. They will assuredly prove a severe test of the judgment of the jurors appointed by the university.”

In many ways, this ominous prediction was proven correct. Throughout the years, the Pulitzer Prizes have proven a difficult task for juries. As the most coveted literary award that a novelist or short story writer can claim in the United States, the prestige of the Pulitzer is perhaps seconded only by the National Book Award (not including science fiction awards like the Hugo or the Nebula). Internationally, the only analog is the Nobel Prize (an award which considers an author’s entire corpus of writing rather than a single book) or perhaps even the Booker Prize. Each year, thousands of books are sold simply based on whether or not they won a Pulitzer Prize, making the honor a great boon for business, as well.

The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917, however the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel was actually awarded the following year in 1918. In the early days, publishers and writers were invited to nominate any American novel simply by sending in a letter and a copy of the book to the Pulitzer Advisory Board. The three-person jury would then whittle down the top three candidates and send the list to Columbia University where the Pulitzer Advisory Board would either approve or decline a winner (in some cases they entirely ignored the Jury’s recommendations. For example, the 1970s were a notorious decade for Jury snubs.

Around 1934, Juries were asked to submit three titles to the Pulitzer Advisory Board, with one preference jointly selected as the award winner. At the 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. In fact, in the early days the Novel juries were mainly comprised of members of two literary organizations, the American Academy of Arts and Letters (where Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler also served as President) and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The actual method of determining and selecting juries has never been fully explained.

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 later changed to the “Fiction Jury” in 1947). In our present-day, the three person Fiction Jury changes each year to offer a fresh perspective on nominees (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, as per Mr. Josef Pulitzer’s initial bequest.

The three novels that are collectively selected by the Fiction Jury are 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, typically when there are no finalists chosen by the Board –as was the case in 2012– the Board simply does not issue a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction despite the Jury’s recommendations).

In 2012, we were offered a closer look at the selection process. As noted above, 2012 was a rare and infamous year when no awardees were announced for the Pulitzer. Michael Cunningham, the famous novelist who wrote The Hours, shared some secrets of the Pulitzer selection process with The New Yorker, and Laura Miller, Salon literary critic and former Pulitzer Fiction Jury member, also shared her perspective in Salon. The details are mostly listed above.

The formal announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes 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 is only awarded to the news organization who wins in the “Public Service” category. The medal was created in 1918 and it features the profile of Benjamin Franklin with honoris causa awarded by Columbia University scribed on one side, and the other side 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. J. Stuckey
    • In spite of Stuckey’s somewhat dismissive characterization of several Pulitzer Prize winners (and quite a few historical errors) I found to be praiseworthy, his book offers some wonderful background history for the prizes.
  • Heinz Dietrich Fischer and Erika Fischer’s Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (2007).

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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