Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Three decades ago, I spent about a year on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. A year was enough. The NBCC’s principal activity was awarding annual prizes, and each member of the board belonged to a committee devoted to choosing that year’s winning book in one category or another. I was on the criticism committee. The job involved reading dozens of books, whole boxfuls of them – although in most cases glancing at a few pages was enough to justify tossing a volume aside and moving on to the next – and, in consultation with the other committee members, picking five finalists for the entire board to vote on.
That year, two books stood out for me as prizeworthy. One was Camille Paglia’s magnum opus Sexual Personae, which impressed me with its quirky brilliance. Almost every page contained a provocative assertion worth pausing over and pondering. When it came to the point in the process at which the entire board crowded around a large table to pronounce on the books selected by the various committees, it was these assertions, these bold statements, that got Paglia in trouble: one member after another, when it came to be his or her turn to comment on Paglia’s book, had already selected a specific sentence, which he or she would read out aloud, outraged at its utter lack of political correctness, and then say something to the effect: “We can’t give a prize to a book that includes that!”
My other favorite that year in the same category was Shelby Steele’s first book, The Content of Our Character, which brought common sense to the dialogue about race in America. That book drew some flak too, because it challenged decades of received wisdom, but after intense debate, Steele won, and I was honored to present him with his prize at the awards ceremony. Although not everybody on the board was thrilled with Steele’s message, they did welcome the opportunity to give an award to a black person. Being able to do so was considered extremely important. Indeed, when we got around to debating poetry books – a category on which roughly half of the board members simply excused themselves (“pass!”), explaining that they didn’t feel comfortable pronouncing on contemporary poetry – there was one potential finalist with a simple English surname, which meant he was probably either a WASP or black. This was pre-Internet, of course, so it wasn’t easy to find out such things, but it was quickly agreed that we had to determine the author’s race before voting on the nomination.
That experience with the NBCC taught me a few lessons. The main one was that political correctness, even then, made a big, big deal.
Anyway, that’s how the National Book Critics Circle Awards worked three decades ago, at least from my perspective. And frankly, it was, at the time anyway, a less left-leaning racket than the other two major book awards, the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards, and less left-leaning than it has since become. Back then, many of the NBCC board members weren’t New York literary types but old-school newspaper types who’d gone straight from high school or state college into a job at some flyover-country daily, where they’d worked other beats – crime, sports, obits, whatever – before ending up on the book desk. They may not have been sophisticated literary types, but neither were they hard-core political ideologues; they were just middlebrow folks who liked a good read. Nonetheless, the awards-selection process was politicized enough to make me quit the board after a year before drifting away from the organization entirely.
My relationship to the NBCC wasn’t renewed until sixteen years later, when my 2006 book While Europe Slept was named a finalist in the criticism category. Given that my book viewed the rise of Islam in Europe with a jaundiced eye, which was verboten on the American left – although, again, it was less of a no-no then than now – I was shocked to see it named a finalist. I was less stunned by the fact that, when the announcements were made public at a shindig in New York, the board member who read off the list of criticism nominees called my book “racism as criticism,” a pronouncement followed by the then NBCC president’s declaration that he’d never been so ashamed to see any book named an NBCC finalist. Two NBCC board members, one of whom I didn’t know and the other of whom I’d long known and respected – and both of whom had given the book enthusiastic reviews – responded sharply to these snotty comments, leading me to believe that they were the ones who’d gotten my book onto the finalist list. (The fact that my book has proven prophetic about subsequent developments in Europe has not, by the way, resulted in apologies by the NBCC board members who trashed it.)
But enough about the NBCC and National Book Awards. Neither the NBCC awards, which were first presented in 1976, nor even the National Book Awards, which go back to 1936, possess the prestige of the Pulitzer Prizes, which were founded in 1917 and are administered by Columbia University. In addition to journalism awards in fourteen categories, from investigative reporting to commentary to editorial cartooning, Pulitzer prizes are presented annually for music as well as for books in six categories – Biography/Autobiography, General Nonfiction, History, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. (As you read the dates in this text, note that a book that wins for a given year will generally have been published in the preceding year.)
For each of these awards, a three-person jury, the members of which are usually practitioners in the field in question and the makeup of which varies from year to year, selects three finalists, with an Advisory Board choosing the winner. To examine the lists of winners and finalists in Biography/Autobiography, General Nonfiction, and History is to be baffled frequently by the placement of certain books in one or another of these three categories: why wasn’t the 2000 winner for General Nonfiction, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War by John W. Dower, placed in the History category? Why was Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix, the 2001 winner for General Nonfiction, not labeled History or Biography?
Far more important, however, is that a study of the winners and finalists uncovers a shift from responsible recognition of first-rate work during the first decades of the awards to selections that are nakedly political in their motivation. Consider Biography. For a long time the choices were mostly solid: Leon Edel’s classic life of Henry James (1963), Elizabeth Frank’s Louise Bogan (1986), David Herbert Donald’s Thomas Wolfe (1988), Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde (1989), plus major works by the likes of Samuel Eliot Morison (1943, 1960) and Walter Jackson Bate (1964,1978).
To be sure, the judges were always suckers for certain brands of left-wing product. Back in the day, if you wanted to maximize your chances for a Pulitzer nod, one smart way to go was to write a hagiography of FDR. In 1949, Robert E. Sherwood won with Roosevelt and Hopkins; in 1972, Joseph Lash, a fellow traveler if not an outright Communist, walked off with the prize for Eleanor and Franklin. Over in the History category, Doris Kearns Goodwin won in 1995 with No Ordinary Time, another love letter to Eleanor and Franklin, which, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “depicts how a savvy, relentlessly involved First Lady incalculably enriched and shaped the political and social agendas of the nation.”
Slavering over the Kennedys was also a good bet. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. won in 1966 for A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which helped create the Camelot legacy. And of course JFK himself famously won in 1956 for Profiles in Courage, even though it was slight, ghostwritten, and not even among the jury finalists (it was, in fact, anointed by Advisory Board member Arthur Krock, a reliable Kennedy crony). Needless to say, a sympathetic biography of Ronald Reagan – let alone Donald Trump – has yet to crack the list of Pulitzer finalists.
Meanwhile, in the General Nonfiction category, worthy books about biology, cosmology, geology, paleontology, medicine, and music alternated until recently with solid works like Anne Applebaum’s comprehensive Gulag (the 2004 winner) and John Berendt’s mesmerizing Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a 1995 finalist). But for decades the selections in the category also included what feels like a disproportionate number of books about things that America had supposedly done disastrously wrong on the international front, such as our interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia and our failures to intervene in Armenia, Bangladesh, and Rwanda. The Pulitzers have recognized several books about how wrong America was to go to war in Indochina, while ignoring books about the nightmare that ensued after we pulled out. The topics of Jim Crow and the civil-rights era also seem overrepresented among Pulitzer finalists.
A perusal of the list of Pulitzer winners and finalists suggests that, even years ago, if you wanted to seduce the Pulitzer people with a book that viewed the USSR unsympathetically, you’d better be sure to paint Gorbachev as more of a hero than Reagan (2010 General Nonfiction winner The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman). Likewise, if you wanted to win for a book that viewed Eastern Europe’s liberation from Communism as a good thing, you’d better be “nuanced” enough to include statements like “The opposite of Communism is not anti-Communism, which at times resembles it greatly. The opposite is tolerance and the rule of law” (1996 General Nonfiction winner The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism by Tina Rosenberg). And if you were going to recount the postwar history of Europe, you’d better bash the US more than the USSR, all but ignore jihad, and cheer the welfare state and EU (2006 General Nonfiction finalist Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt).
In the last few years, all three of the nonfiction Pulitzer categories have grown increasingly politicized. The 2015 winner in Biography/Autobiography was The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer. Need I say more? (And here we all thought that John Cornwell had drained that well dry in Hitler’s Pope.) In 2016 Susan Faludi, a founding mother of third-wave feminism, published In the Darkroom, an account of her father’s sexual transition; of course it became a Pulitzer finalist in Biography/Autobiography. And in 2018 came The Road Not Taken, yet another book about – to quote its subtitle – “the American tragedy in Vietnam,” and hence another ready-made Pulitzer finalist in Biography/Autobiography (whose author, Max Boot, was apparently forgiven his conservative credentials because he’s one of the most vociferous of GOP NeverTrumpers).
Among the most jaw-dropping recent finalists in General Nonfiction was Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (2014), a celebration of Communist China’s “triumph” by a fervent China fan who compares that country’s imperialistic infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa to the Marshall Plan and who refuses to call China Communist. On the same year’s finalist list in that category was Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living, which tells the story of America’s involvement in Afghanistan not from an American point of view but from the perspectives of three Afghanis, including a Taliban commander, Akbar Gul, who is guilty of bloodthirsty brutality and keeps a young boy around as a sex toy. “Gopal,” wrote one reviewer, “manages to cast an empathetic light on Akbar Gul and other Talibs without sparing readers from their misdeeds.” Misdeeds!
In 2016, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates not only won the National Book Award but was also a finalist for the Pulitzer in General Nonfiction. No surprise there: Coates, who brags that his “heart was cold” on 9/11 – why mourn the deaths of racist cops? – is the left’s black intellectual du jour, and his book, as Kyle Smith wrote in Commentary, “shamelessly misrepresents” facts in order to convey his “inchoate generalized contempt for America, especially white America.” The next year, a General Nonfiction finalist was The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery by Micki McElya, who problematizes (as they say) the idea of “military valor,” highlights (according to one glowing review) “issues of race, gender, sexuality, and nationhood,” and claims to “revea[l] how Arlington encompasses the most inspiring and the most shameful aspects of American history.”
Here’s yet another item for the “is nothing sacred?” file: in her 2018 Biography/Autobiography winner Prairie Fires, a life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books, Caroline Fraser exposes Wilder’s works as anti-black and anti-Indian. By deconstructing Wilder, you see, Fraser seeks to deconstruct the entire myth of the conquest of the American frontier and the triumph of the American dream. Oh, and she also castigates Wilder’s family for damaging the environment. In short, a perfect Pulitzer candidate.
I’ve mentioned the Pulitzers for FDR and JFK hagiographies. Exactly one Nixon biography has been a Pulitzer finalist: John A. Farrell’s 2017 Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell. No hagiography this, of course. While Farrell’s earlier life of Tip O’Neill portrayed the longtime Speaker of the House as (in the words of Publishers Weekly) a “folk hero” who rescued key elements of the New Deal legacy from destruction by the evil Ronald Reagan, Farrell’s Nixon is no hero: the New York Times review was headlined “Portrait of a Thin-Skinned, Media-Hating President,” while the New Statesman praised Farrell for “shed[ding] light on all the president’s demons.” Niall Ferguson, noting that baby boomers love to hate Nixon, commented that Farrell recounts Nixon’s life in a highly slanted fashion “that few of his fellow boomers will find objectionable.”
One particularly breathtaking 2016 finalist in General Nonfiction was Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, which recounts a yearlong dialogue about the Muslim holy book between a nonbeliever and an imam who “both knew that a close look at the Quran would reveal a faith that preached peace and not mass murder; respect for women and not oppression.” Simply to read this one-sentence summary is to realize that this is a staggeringly dishonest book, accorded legitimacy by the same Pulitzer folks who, in the years since 9/11, have utterly ignored a number of first-rate – and honest – books about Islam by people like Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christopher Caldwell. (Yes, the 2007 winner in General Nonfiction was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, but that book focuses less on Islamic ideology than on the personalities of various terrorists and CIA and FBI operatives – and one wonders whether, if it were published now, it would stand a chance of being considered for a Pulitzer.)
In 2018 the General Nonfiction award went to a book about the “overincarceration” of blacks in the US, while one of the finalists was Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, a poisonously anti-American screed that was widely praised for bashing the notions of American exceptionalism and American goodness. This year’s titles in the category do a perfect job of summing up where the Pulitzers stand at present. One finalist, Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, takes us to coastal U.S. communities that are purportedly threatened with inundation owing to man-made climate change; the other finalist, Bernice Yeung’s In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers examines sexual violence against illegal-immigrant women. Now, it goes without saying that sexual violence is deplorable, no matter who the victims are; but it’s also ubiquitous, and focusing on illegal immigrants who’ve been sexually abused is a neat excuse to depict illegal immigrants generally as victims, not lawbreakers. The 2019 winner? Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America – the story of a community supposedly destroyed by fracking. Note the pattern here: paint sympathetic portraits of specific individuals in order to make broader ideological points.
At least one book that was conspicuously missing from the 2019 General Nonfiction list was Heather MacDonald The Diversity Delusion, a definitive study of the academy’s destructive obsession with race and gender. But of course the unjust omissions, over the years, have been innumerable. Speaking of the academy, where was the Pulitzer nod for The Shadow University: The Betrayal Of Liberty On America’s Campuses (1999), in which Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate drew attention to a problem that has only ballooned in the last two decades?
I’ve mentioned Shelby Steele’s pathbreaking The Content of Our Character, but Steele – unlike race hustler Ta-Nehisi Coates – has never been a Pulitzer nominee. Similarly, while feminist ideologue Susan Faludi has won a Pulitzer, classical-liberal feminist Christine Hoff Sommers, author of the important books Who Stole Feminism (1994) and The War against Boys (2000), has been ignored. Where, by the way, was the Pulitzer for Victor Davis Hanson’s Mexifornia (2003), in which he showed exactly where his home state of California was headed? Was James Lord, a brilliant memoirist and biographer (Giacometti, 1985), considered anathema by the Pulitzer people because, in a famous 1956 open letter, he publicly called out his old friend Picasso’s public silence on the Soviet invasion of Hungary – or simply because of his association with the conservative monthly New Criterion? Also totally absent from the Pulitzer record is the name of Tom Wolfe, a number of whose books, including Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), The Painted Word (1975), The Right Stuff (1979), and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), are indispensable accounts of American society, politics, and culture in our time.
The books I’ve discussed so far, of course, are all works of nonfiction. Let it be noted that Pulitzer has also ignored Wolfe’s fiction. The year that his epoch-defining novel Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was eligible, it wasn’t even a finalist; the Fiction winner was Toni Morrison’s insipid Beloved. But this sort of injustice has long been par for the course for the Pulitzers in Fiction. Even back in the 1940s the Pulitzer juries favored “progressive” novelists such as John Steinbeck, Ellen Glasgow, and Upton Sinclair. Of the non-progressive fiction writers who seem, to me anyway, to have been eminently deserving of Pulitzers –among them Mark Helprin (A Soldier of the Great War, 1991), Louis Auchincloss (The Rector of Justin, 1964), Flannery O’Connor (Complete Stories, 1972), Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, 1961), and Evan S. Connell (Mrs. Bridge, 1959) – not a single one has ever been so much as a Pulitzer finalist.
The current state of the category can be easily summed up: the 2016 winner was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which is a sprawling mess but which has a North Vietnamese Communist as its protagonist; the 2017 winner was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which brought nothing fresh to that familiar but perennially PC topic; the 2018 winner was Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, about an aging gay man’s trip around the world; and the 2019 winner was Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Now, I’ve admired Powers, a highly intelligent writer, for decades, but to win a Pulitzer he had to dumb himself down and write a love letter to tree-huggers. Yes, some of these books, seen in isolation, might be considered reasonable candidates for Pulitzer recognition; but survey them in toto and you have a clear picture of authors being awarded for their politics, group identity, and/or virtue signaling.
Finally, there’s Poetry. For a long time the list of Poetry winners and finalists consisted largely of the crème de la crème: Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Donald Justice, Louis Simpson, Richard Wilbur, Donald Hall. But in the last decade or so, the poetry juries have seemed to be at least as preoccupied with group identity and political correctness as with aesthetic value. Surveying the works of recent winners and finalists, including Campbell McGrath, Rae Armantrout (a leading member of that no-talent school known as “language poets”), Patricia Smith (the all-time “poetry slam” champion), Evie Shockley and Tyehimba Jess (both devotees of the radical, racist Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s), and Jos Charles (a 2019 finalist who is “the founding-editor of THEM, the first trans literary journal in the U.S.” and who “engages in direct gender justice work with a variety of organizations and performers”), I’m appalled by their slightness, their offhand quality, their utter lack of anything remotely resembling literary distinction. While mediocrities like this have been gobbling up Pulitzers, brilliant technicians and masters of form – such as Dana Gioia, Charles Martin, Frederick Turner, Tom Disch, William Louis-Dreyfus, Rachel Hadas, Phillis Levin, and Alfred Corn – have been routinely ignored. The one top-notch poet who has won a Pulitzer in recent years is Kay Ryan (2011), although when I noticed her name on the list my first thought was that, well, it sure didn’t hurt that she’s an out lesbian.
What of the 2020 winners? This year’s Pulitzers were, of course, most famous for the award, in the Commentary category, to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay for the New York Times’s deplorable “1619 Project” – a perfect example of what the Pulitzers have come to in our time. But the book awards were also true to form: in Biography, the winner was Benjamin Moser’s adoring biography of the execrable leftist writer Susan Sontag; one of the three finalists in History blamed capitalism for problems with black homeownership; a co-winner in General Nonfiction assailed “the capitalism of cancer care in America”; and the other winner in that category, Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth, painted the U.S. as, at heart, a genocidal empire that, long bent on “relentless race terror,” is now “at the end of its myth.”
It’s a familiar parlor game to name actors or films that were overlooked over the years at Oscar time or that, alternatively, were undeservedly rewarded. What I’m talking about here, however, is a decades-long, and worsening, systematic pattern of prejudice on the part of the Pulitzer judges that is rooted in political philosophy and that is replicated by the NBCC, the National Book Awards, and other noted book prizes. Fortunately, there are American book prizes that are based more solidly on merit. In the category of poetry, for instance, both the Poets’ Prize, first awarded in 1988, and the New Criterion Poetry Prize, founded in 2000, seek to honor poets who actually demonstrate technical and formal mastery. These prizes make a difference. Nonetheless, they remain relatively minor gestures in a time when the NBCC, NBA, and, above all, the Pulitzer, continue to be regarded by the mainstream media and the academy as definitive, continue to influence public opinion on important issues, and continue to shape the direction of American writing, American thought, and American public policy.
A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Claremont Review of Books.