Literary Awards: The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

The Pulitzer Prizes represent the highest honor in American journalism and creative arts. On May 9th, 22 prize winners received their awards and prize money, and took their place in American history.

This article will delve into the history of the literature prizes honoring the best of American writing, and recount some notable winners.

The Pulitzer Prizes for Literature

There are many Pulitzer prizes for literary achievements, with several awards for different forms of journalism, as well as prizes for fiction, drama, poetry, history, general non-fiction, and biography.  

When Did the Pulitzer Prizes Start?

The Pulitzer Prizes began following the death of Joseph Pulitzer, a celebrated and influential journalist who had made provisions for the creation of the awards in his will. His aim was for the awards to promote excellence in journalism. The first awards were held in 1917, at Columbia University, which has been their home ever since.

Why Are the Pulitzer Prizes Important?

The Prizes are the most prestigious awards in American journalism and literature. 

They remain a powerful incentive to strive for excellence in journalism, with awards given for outstanding writing and investigative skill. 

Prizes for books, music, and drama are awarded for their excellent quality and their encapsulation of American life and/or history. 

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winners in History

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was one of the original categories, and was known as the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel from 1918 to 1947. The first winner was His Family by Ernest Poole. 

In 1948, it was changed to its current name and enabled the prize to be awarded to collections of short stories for the first time - Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener. 

Only Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.

While some winners are relatively obscure, others have become globally celebrated works, such as The Old Man and the Sea (1953) by Ernest Hemingway and To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) by Harper Lee.

Here's a list of the most recent Pulitzer Prize winners in the Fiction category:

  • 2022 - The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen.
  • 2021 - The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich.
  • 2020 - The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.
  • 2019 - The Overstory by Richard Powers.
  • 2018 - Less by Andrew Sean Greer.
  • 2017 - The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
  • 2016 - The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
  • 2015 - All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
  • 2014 - The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
  • 2013 - The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson.
  • 2011 - A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
  • 2010 - Tinkers by Paul Harding.
  • 2009 - Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
  • 2008 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
  • 2007 - The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
  • 2006 - March by Geraldine Brooks.
  • 2005 - Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
  • 2004 - The Known World by Edward P. Jones.
  • 2003 - Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
  • 2002 - Empire Falls by Richard Russo.
  • 2001 - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.
  • 2000 - Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.
  • 1999 - The Hours by Michael Cunningham.
  • 1998 - American Pastoral by Philip Roth.
  • 1997 - Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser.
  • 1996 - Independence Day by Richard Ford.
  • 1995 - The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.
  • 1994 - The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.

Other Pulitzer Prize Genres

There are 14 prizes in the Journalism category, covering different forms of reporting, writing and photography. 

The other Letters and Drama prizes are for General Non-fiction, History, Biography and Drama. 

Entrants for the Letters and Drama prizes must be works produced that year by an American author and preferably dealing with American life.

There's also a Music prize for a piece that had its first performance in America that year. 

Other Top Literary Prizes

Perhaps the most prestigious global literature prize is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is awarded for an author's entire body of work. Notable winners of both the Nobel and the Pulitzer Prize include Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow.

The Booker Prize is awarded for outstanding works written in English and published in the UK. The International Booker Prize is its sister award for works translated into English and published in the UK. 

Other prestigious awards that recognize American literature include the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

How Do You Get a Pulitzer Prize?

Entrants to the books, music, and drama awards must be US citizens, whilst the journalism awards are open to people of any nationality, but their work must have appeared in an American publication.

Each year, juries judge thousands of entrants and nominate three finalists in each category to the Pulitzer Prize Board. This is a 19-strong panel of influential academics, editors, and columnists, who then debate and select the winning work. 

So, now you know a little more about America's most important literary award. But did you know there's only one president to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Find out which president, right here on Infoplease.

Or why not browse the full list of prize winners to find your next bit of bedtime reading. Maybe your name will join them one day.

Sources +

About the author

Infoplease Staff

Infoplease staff work hard to create, curate, and edit a variety of content for all audiences.

Infoplease: your gateway to knowledge and enriching minds, one fact at a time.

View More About Our Editors, Experts, Authors, & Advisors