How awesome is the Pulitzer Prize anyway?

Published 9:31 am Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Angie Barker, Entertain Me

The Pulitzer Prize sounds fancy, right?

I didn’t know anything about it, so I decided to do a little research because I’m not going to revere a prize until I know what I’m supposed to be awed about. I used to think the Moonman was awesome too. In my defense, The Real World was still about when people stop being polite and start getting real. True story! Anyone can get prize eyes, and be blinded by the shiny, so let’s see if Pulitzer deserves the recognition.

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Joseph Pulitzer was a newspaper publisher whose sensationalized style of journalism helped coin the term yellow journalism. Uh oh. Not a great start, Joe. (Anyone familiar with the movie “Newsies” knows what I’m talking about.) But according to, “In the view of historians, Pulitzer’s lapse into “yellow journalism” was outweighed by his public service achievements. He waged courageous and often successful crusades against corrupt practices in government and business. He was responsible to a large extent for passage of antitrust legislation and regulation of the insurance industry.”

He was an immigrant who spoke little to no English and lived hand to mouth. He happened upon a job as a journalist writing for a German newspaper in St. Louis which led to a share in ownership. Pretty soon the guy was buying up papers and making them circulation successes. He’s a smart business man, I’ll give him that. He posthumously established the Pulitzer Prizes, which were first awarded in 1917. The fiction category is in the letters and drama section and the one I focused in on. Also included are biography/autobiography, drama, history, poetry and general non-fiction. The Pulitzer Prize for fiction is awarded by a panel of peers to American authors for distinguished writing on American life.

Sounds like old Pulitzer was looking for a legacy. If so, he nailed it. I’m convinced he’s worthy of awe, but that didn’t mean his award is. I have to read for myself. I picked some of the most recent winners including “Olive Kitteridge,” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” “The Road,” and “March.” I hated them all. Totally kidding! They were amazing and absolutely nothing alike, other than they dealt with American life and were written by American authors. Rules are rules.

“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout won in 2009. It is a novel comprised of thirteen short stories. Olive being featured or mentioned in each story gives it a thematic structure. The story has a novel feel to it without having a singular narrative. The reader is allowed intimate access to the characters, and Strout writes their stories without judgment. Olive is not always a likable person but she is never a villain.

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz won in 2008. Diaz’s intention for the novel is to fill in some of the gaps of the Dominican Republic’s past, his ancestral home. He uses the multigenerational narrative of the Cabral family to achieve this, despite the cultural belief in mysticism, Diaz never makes it difficult to sort fact from fiction.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy won in 2007. It is the story of a father and son who are journeying through a post-apocalyptic world to reach the warmth of the coast. There is no promise the coast will have anything to offer, but they have hope. “The Road” illustrates the best and worst of being human. The difference between existing and living is our humanity.

“March” by Geraldine Brooks won in 2006. It is the account of the absentee father, John March, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” during his service with the Union in the Civil War as a chaplain. March is an abolitionist who enlists because of his ideals and in spite of his responsibilities. His confrontation with the realities of war and the blurred boundaries of right and wrong threaten to redefine what he believes to be true. “March” employs an idealist to expose the perils of romanticizing war.

Albert Lea resident Angie Zoller Barker’s column appears every Monday in the Albert Lea Tribune. This week it is published later because of space issues. You can also visit the Entertain Me blog on the Albert Lea Tribune website for additional information. Email questions, recommendations, or comments to