Vietnamese-born academic’s debut novel wins Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Some of the most important literary journals didn’t review The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – but this major win will boost its sales and raise its profile immensely
The award of the Pulitzer prize for fiction to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer may have surprised some. It’s the sort of book that, when it appeared last autumn to rave reviews, didn’t exactly become a conversation-starter. Literary types spent most of the autumn arguing about A Little Life in the pages of various literary reviews. Neither the London Review of Books nor The New York Review of Books has touched it. The New Yorker ran a short review in its Briefly Noted section. That was it, until Monday’s announcement.
For people who do not follow the politics of literary awards, this might seem curious. They assume that winning such a prestigious national award would be the crowning achievement of a much-laurelled book. And The Sympathizer, which explores the Vietnam war and its legacy from the perspective of a Vietnamese spy, did appear on some end-of-year best-of lists in newspapers. It has indeed won or been shortlisted for other prizes. But it was not selling a huge amount.
Book awards, however, are not like the Oscars. Awards are not cumulative, and in the case of something like the Pulitzers, the jurors often have another goal in mind: sales. They know that the Pulitzer stamp can sell a book.
There are, as the critic Laura Miller of Salon.com has often said, two economies at work in book publishing: the prestige economy, which is where the awards and the Reviews of Books come in; and the sales economy, which is where most of the paperback thrillers live. These economies only really tend to intersect at literary prize time, when the stamp of a prestigious prize on a book cover can persuade a bookstore browser to pick up something they might otherwise have passed over.
And when these prizes, particularly the Pulitzer, fall down on that job, novelists are usually quick to remind them of the role. In 2012, the Pulitzer jury could not agree on an award in fiction. The novelist Ann Patchett promptly, if gently, castigated the jury for ignoring a major part of their mission: “The winners are written up in papers and talked about on the radio, and sometimes, at least on PBS stations, they make it on to television,” she wrote in The New York Times. “This in turn gives the buzz that is so often lacking in our industry – ‘Did you hear about that book?’”
Like The Sympathizer, the other books the Pulitzer committees chose to highlight this year have flown largely under the radar. William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life was excerpted in The New Yorker before it was published, and its gorgeous account of growing up in Hawaii must have seemed like the stuff of a surefire bestseller. But while it made many end-of-year lists, and reviews were beyond rapturous, the book didn’t quite make the bestseller list.
Nor were the two other non-fiction books that made the list big sellers. Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and T.J. Stiles’s Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America were both critical successes but not the kind of books people discussed at cocktail parties.
That might happen now, of course, especially for Stiles (who has won a Pulitzer before, for his book The First Tycoon, a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt). A certain kind of person loves to note that they’re currently soldiering through the latest Pulitzer winner for history, in particular. It connotes a certain gravitas, a connectedness to the literary and intellectual scene that most upwardly mobile professionals still desire. And given that the news is so bad these days, who could blame anyone for wanting to revel in the past?