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1920s Pulitzers -- why are they so bad?

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Melody I am amazed at how mediocre (or even bad) most (I exclude Age of Innocence) of the early Pulitzer novels are. The era was not a bad time for literature, but many Pulitzer winners of this era barely make the grade of ok. (Magnificent Ambersons, Alice Adams, So Big, Early Autumn, Able McLaughlins... even the Willa Cather entry is silly).

What gives with this?

message 2: by Dottie (last edited Sep 27, 2008 08:49AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dottie It's all relative and subjective and one must always remember not only the time period in which a story is set but that in which the author wrote the book in question. I sing this song with great regularity -- just ask people and they'll tell you they've heard it all before -- heh.

Tyler I think it's a matter of changing tastes. I'm currently reading Arrowsmith and I like it, though The Age of Innocence is a tough act to follow. I'd guess Arrowsmith was chosen for its unusual topic as well as the writing. About other 1920's prize winners, I don't know.

Melody I have been reading New York Times reviews as I read the Pulitzers, and I agree that times and taste and context are really important. The review of Arrowsmith mentioned how wonderful the portrayals of women are, when the only 2 with any real role are stereotypes, and only serve as a foil for Arrowsmith.

That said, check in again after you read Scarlet Sister Mary. It is the low point of the Pulitzers, even had its own controversy over its choice. An ideologically difficult read...

But Pulitzer choices are perplexing. Otherwise we would be reading Fitzgerald, Lewis, and their like.

message 5: by TDH (new) - rated it 2 stars

TDH As Dottie said, it's all a matter of opinion. Personally, I found Age of Innocence to be somewhat tedious and boring at times, but I certainly can acknowledge Edith Wharton's lasting impact on American writing.

Topher maybe you're just not that smart?

Arrowsmith, Age of Innocence, Alice Adams and So Big are sort of big, important novels....

Melody Har har! Funny!

But that does not explain why only the first two you mention persisted as books that are read today. And others from the 20s are pretty dismal.

Why are Alice Adams a So Big "sort of big, important novels"?

message 8: by Daniel J. (last edited Aug 23, 2013 06:35PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Daniel J. Nickolas I'm not a big fan of theory "it was written in a different time and so we can't really understand it". Tons of works that were written in different times, dealing with topics we can't relate to, we do understand. Age of Innoncence was published in the 1920's and takes place several decades before then. Despite it now being the 21st century, and me not being a high class New Yoker or Polish Countess, I still find it intriguing, witty, and believable.

I've never heard of any of the other novels mentioned (not to imply anything about them).

Geoffrey Just on speculation, but isn`t it possible that the jurors themselves were tainted. There are times in any nation`s history that the best don`t necessarily rise to the top on account of a broken system. Is it possible that this may be the reason?

Geoffrey Willa Cather did not get the Pulitzer for either O Pioneers! or My Antonia from oversight. She got it for a much lesser novel. A makeup prize.

I have not read most of the others so I am not at liberty to say. I have never read the Magnificent Ambersons, but thought the movie one of the best of American cinematic history. Joseph Cotten`s soliloquoy at the dinner table with his love object and her jerky son alone was nothing less than stupenduous.

Lobstergirl It's a mistake to think of the Pulitzers automatically as "the best." Some judges didn't even read the novels at issue, just like some people in the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences TODAY don't watch every single film up for an Oscar before they vote. Certain books and movies generate a buzz, or there's a herd mentality.

message 12: by Michael (last edited Jan 14, 2014 05:29PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Michael Canoeist I'm joining this discussion late, but I differ with you, Melody. I think the '20s Pulitzer winners were much better, as a whole, than the winners of recent years. Current books seem trivial or pretentious, or both; in sharp contrast, I liked The Magnificent Ambersons a great deal. Also enjoyed So Big. Their story-telling is powerful, more so than for most of our contemporary writers; and Tarkington especially has a rich, enjoyable style. These books are much more satisfying, to me, than recent winners (which often seem to have had to meet extra-literary agendas on the part of the prize judges).

message 13: by Tom (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom You also need to remember who gives out the Pulitzers. Begun by Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, they are awards organized by newspapers - so perhaps literary quality isn't the sole standard as much as topicality and newsworthy. If you look at the list, they tend to deal with issues of the day: the effects of the growth of American capitalism, war, social upheaval. Also, look at who wins -- many former newspaper reporters who switched over to writing novels. There were some clunkers, no doubt, but there is a news quality as to their subject matter.

message 14: by Anita (new) - added it

Anita I'm with Michael. I admire the older Pulitzer winners more than many of the recent ones.

Scott I would argue that the Cather entry was an outstanding one. One of Ours was a great book about the horrors of war and how it affected one family in the midwest who lost their son. The ending of it with him being cut down by machine gun fire was very dramatic and *beautiful* in a truly literary way. Nothing mediocre about that in regards to human emotion and indirect commentary about man's capacity for warfare and destruction.

Sinclair Lewis struck gold once, and almost twice with his books. One of my favorite stories is about how he wrote a letter to Edith Wharton congratulating her on winning the pulitzer, despite that meaning that Main Street would lose. Lewis, Cather, and Wharton had a good decade during that time, the books are very strong in content. I would wager the list is better top to bottom than the list of books that won the putlizer in the '30s.

message 16: by Geoffrey (last edited Jul 03, 2014 10:05PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Geoffrey And yet Cather didn´t get a Pulitzer for her better novels, O Pioneer or My Antonia.

And what about Upton Sinclair? A very much overlooked author.

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