Agree to Disagree: Comparing The National Book Award for Fiction with the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Chris Schluep on July 31, 2018
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Less.jpgBack in May a paperback book turned up on best seller lists, where it has remained ever since. That book is Less by Andrew Sean Greer, and it won the Pulitzer in April. The paperback of Less was published on May 22nd. As of this writing, it is #26 on the print best seller list. That's more than three months on the best seller list, which these days is a pretty remarkable feat for a book of literary fiction.

Awards sell books. Or they often do. Or at least they bring attention, and if the book resonates with an audience you get something like what's happened with Less. It probably helped that Andrew Sean Greer's book is funny. In fact, Ron Charles wrote in the Washington Post, "what makes this year’s winner so unusual is that his novel is funny. Very funny. Laugh-till-you-can’t-breathe funny."

Thinking about Less got me thinking about book awards in general. Less won the Pulitzer, but it wasn't even on the long list for the National Book Award for Fiction. Do the committees ever agree?

I decided to compare the Pulitzer for Fiction with the National Book Award for Fiction. The Pulitzer is older, first awarded in 1918. The National Book Award for Fiction was first given in 1950. That leaves almost 70 years when they have both existed, which seemed like a good sample size; so I looked at those years.

It turns out that only 14 authors have won both a Pulitzer and an NBA. That means the Pulitzer and NBA judges disagree roughly 80% of the time. And here's what's really interesting: when it comes to authors who have won both awards, in most cases the committees selected different books.

For example, Philip Roth won two National Book Awards (Goodbye, Columbus in 1960 and Sabbath's America in 1995), but he had to wait until 1998 to be awarded the Pulitzer for American Pastoral. As recently as 2013, Adam Johnson received the Pulitzer for his book about a taciturn man from North Korea (The Orphan Master's Son); but he had to wait until 2015 to receive the National Book Award for Fortune Smiles: Short Stories.

Other writers on which the committees have agreed but disagreed are Bernard Malamud (NBA for The Magic Barrel; Pulitzer for The Fixer), Saul Bellow (NBA for Herzog; Pulitzer for Humboldt's Gift), William Styron (NBA for Sophie's Choice; Pulitzer for The Confessions of Nat Turner), Wallace Stegner (NBA for Spectator Bird; Pulitzer for Angle of Repose), and Cormac McCarthy (NBA for All the Pretty Horses; Pulitzer for The Road).

But the committees do occasionally agree. In 68 years, it's happened seven times. Here are the novels on which the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards agreed:


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A Fable by William Faulkner - This novel won the Pulitzer and NBA in 1955.

In addition, The Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner received a National Book Award in 1951. His novel The Reivers won a Pulitzer in 1963.

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The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever - For a few years in the 80s, the National Book Award for Fiction was granted to both a hardcover and a paperback book. So in this case, Cheever's short stories won the 1979 Pulitzer and the 1981 National Book Award (for paperback, but it still counts).

Cheever also picked up the National Book Award in 1958 for The Wapshot Chronicles.

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The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter - 1966 was a big year for Katherine Anne Porter. She was awarded both the National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer for Fiction.

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Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike - Updike received both awards in 1982.

In 1991, he was awarded a second Pulitzer for Rabbit at Rest.

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The Color Purple by Alice Walker - Walker received both awards in 1983. 

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The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx - Proulx's The Shipping News was awarded the National Book Award in 1993 and the Pulitzer in 1994.

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The Underground Railroad: A Novel by Colson Whitehead - Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad received the National Book Award in 2016 and the Pulitzer in 2017. We liked his book, too.


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