The historical information is paraphrased from The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look, by W. A. Stuckey (University of Oklahoma Press: 1981), specifically pages 3-25. The information about how the Pulitzer is awarded now, in the 21st Century, comes from a piece written for the New Yorker by Michael Cunningham, who served on the fiction jury for the 2012 award. For more information on the selection process from another recent Pulitzer fiction juror, I suggest reading this piece by Salon’s excellent literary critic, Laura Miller.
The criteria for the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel changed much in the early years of the prize. Pulitzer, in his creation of the prize, said that it should be awarded to “the American novel published during the year which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Apparently someone at Columbia University (which administrates the awarding of the prize) changed “whole” to “wholesome” before the prize was first awarded…you can see how that would really slant the selections, I think. Stuckey comments that holding to such a strict standard of manners and morals would disqualify every great American novel ever written, leaving the Pulitzer board to choose books “fit for a Sunday school library”. I can’t disagree. Apparently a number of critics also gave voice to their disapproval of this standard, which only lasted a decade or so.
After 1928, the terms of the prize changed. The new standard established that the prize would be given to “the American novel published during the year, preferably one which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life”. Confusion abounded. What was intended by the phrase “the American novel”, and how did that phrase aid at all in the selection process? And what did a novel have to do to capture the “whole” of American life? This new standard lasts all of a year, as in 1930 the Pulitzer was redefined as recognizing “the best American novel published during the year, preferably one which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life”. “Wholesome” is back, as you can see, and frankly Stuckey and I would both agree that there’s something a bit challenging about choosing the best novel and the most wholesome novel, and assuming it’s going to be the same thing. The phrasing makes it pretty obvious that “best” should take precedence over “wholesome”, but this wouldn’t last long either.
In 1934, the criteria were further simplified, replacing the previous language with “the best novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” This lasts two years, and is replaced in 1936 by “a distinguished novel of the year”. What an odd choice—it’s not even clear that they’re picking the best novel any longer, but no other criteria have been presented. And yet that is where it remains. The next change after 1936 was in 1947, when the word “novel” was replaced by “fiction in book form” (a switch I’ll discuss once I get there). As of 2012, the definition used is more or less a combination of 1947 and 1934 (I don’t know exactly when this phrasing was instituted, but I’m hoping to find out), and is phrased as a prize “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” Taken in one long look, I’d say the criteria were never very good or very clear, and that what they settled on strikes me as almost their worst possible option (as far as aiding in selection goes) and their best possible option (since it gives them incredible freedom) in the same breath.
The Selection Process
At the outset, the process defined by officials of Columbia University was as follows: novelists and publishers were welcome to nominate any American novel published that year, simply by sending a letter of nomination and a copy of the book to the Pulitzer board. The three-man jury (and yes, they were invariably men at the time), whose membership was generally kept secret, would review the novels and whittle them down to their top three selections. At that point, they would vote, and forward to Columbia their top choice. That novel was then reviewed by the Advisory Board, which voted to accept the recommendation, replace it with another suitable title, or refuse to issue an award that year. This was the official practice until 1934 (though much was secret, in those days, and it’s not clear if this procedure was followed strictly each time).
In 1934, the juries were given new instructions—rather than submit one title as “the” choice, they were to submit multiple novels along with a rationale for picking each one, and the Advisory Board would select from the list which novel was the recipient. Even then, the juries often made it clear which title was preferred, and apparently the Advisory Board was usually willing to simply endorse the jury’s preference.
Juries were generally made up of academics with at least some professional interest in fiction, but the jurors were rarely expert in contemporary fiction. From 1917 to 1974, only 5 of the 155 jurors who served over that time had real experience as a professional novelist. This trend has changed in recent years—for example, the three person jury for the 2012 fiction award included Michael Cunningham, an award-winning novelist.
As of 2012, the process for selection involves a submission of three “finalists” by the three person fiction jury to the Pulitzer Board, whose eighteen members are largely “journalists and academics” according to Cunningham. The three novels on the list of finalists are not ranked, and the jury makes no recommendation to the Board regarding which title is preferred (if any is). The Board is free to select any of the three finalists, or to ask the jury for a fourth finalist, or to select any of the other eligible titles (though the Board has not taken this last step—when none of the finalists are chosen by the Board for the award, as occurred in 2012, the Board chose not to issue a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction).