The Best Pulitzer-Winning Books Written by Women
I’ve mentioned before that some great blog ideas come from looking at keyword searches to my blog, such as a recent one searching for the best women authors who won a Nobel or Pulitzer. Seeing that I’m only about 30 books in to the 100+ Nobel list, today’s post will focus on the best Pulitzer winners written by female authors (my opinion, of course).
Out of the 86 winners of the Pulitzer Prize, 28 were written by women authors. In almost every decade (with the exception of the 1950s) a woman has won at least one Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Interestingly, the two decades tied for the most female winners (five each) are the 2000s and the 1930s. Nice to see women getting recognition way back when.
1) The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford by Jean Stafford, 1970 Pulitzer Prize
Before I began reading the Pulitzer winner list, I would rarely (if ever) choose to read a collection of short stories. I am a bit ashamed even admitting that now, because in both the Pulitzers and Nobels there are some stellar short story collections that I would have just skipped. Jean Stafford’s collection is one of those. I read Stafford shortly after reading John Cheever who solidified my appreciation and newfound love for the short story. I went in to it thinking there’s no way she could compete with “prose master” Cheever, but I was wrong. Written in the 1970s, her collection ranges from expats in Europe, to tubercular patients in Colorado, to life in the Northeast (Stafford also has an amazing vocabulary!). She also deserves the prose master title. (I’ve blogged about Stafford before, here).
2) Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1988 Pulitzer Prize
This was my second Morrison novel, having read Song of Solomon a year or so before. She wowed me then and she didn’t disappoint with Beloved. Morrison deserves every single prize that she has ever won (Pulitzer and Nobel to name a couple). Morrison, in my opinion, has mastered the fantastic reality and has the ability to convince the reader to go along with, well, just about anything – reality be damned!
3) The Color Purple by Alice Walker, 1983 Pulitzer Prize
I took notes on every book that I read when going through the Pulitzer list and the comment that I included with The Color Purple was, “what The Help wanted to be.” I will just say quickly that I was not a fan of The Help and Alice Walker’s book is not even that similar to it in terms of plot or themes. However, it is an examination of female life in the rural South in the 1930s and, I believe, a much deeper and more thoughtful novel. The Help seemed to just stay right at the surface while Color Purple dives deep in and drags you under with it.
4) Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, 1931 Pulitzer Prize
I love that women were winning the Pulitzer Prize throughout its nearly 100 year history, and I would be remiss if I only included more modern winners in this best-of list. I found that the novels written by women in the 1920s to 1940s (and those written by men as well) seemed naive to a reader in the 21st century. I tried to put myself in the mindset of a woman then (you know, only recently given the right to vote in presidential elections a handful of years prior) and doing so made it easier to appreciate these novels. Years of Grace is one example of this. Following the life of a woman born in the end of the 19th century, the novel illuminates the barriers women faced and the slow erosion of social and cultural norms that allowed them to have a bit more freedom. I felt the entrapment of the main character and the slow way that she accepted the new norms of subsequent generations.
5) Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2000 Pulitzer Prize
Another short story collection on this best-of list, Lahiri’s was one of the first short story collections that I read from the Pulitzer list. Her poignant stories about immigrant life were relatable to me, the wife of an immigrant and also the friend of immigrants. The stories are (generally) about Indian Americans assimilating into Americana. One story that still is fresh in my mind is titled Mrs. Sen’s, which is about a wife of a professor who doesn’t know how to drive. I could feel the sense of hopelessness that this woman had from her lack of independent mobility options. Lahiri’s writing is clear and memorable.
Honorable Mention: Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau (1965); A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1992); The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (1994) and The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter (1966).