Joshua Cohen’s ‘The Netanyahus’ wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction

In recent years the prestigious Pulitzer Prize has been praised and lambasted for the unorthodox award recipients. Critics have branded recent winners in music and literature as “non-traditional”. With a 105-year-old history, the Pulitzer Prize (administered by Columbia University), announces winners every May on the recommendation of the Pulitzer Prize Board, composed of judges appointed by the university. 

Established in 1917 by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, who made his fortune as a newspaper publisher, the annual awards recognise achievements in newspaper, magazine, online journalism, literature and musical composition within the United States. Prizes are awarded yearly with each winner receiving a certificate and a $15 000 cash award.

In 2018 rapper Kendrick Lamar — who released his new album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers last week — won a Pulitzer for his album DAMN. Making history as the first rapper to win a Pulitzer, the win broke the norm from the classically trained composers and jazz musicians that have been the only winners in music. 

Lamar shocked many by winning against fellow nominees, Michael Gilbertson for Quartet and Ted Hearn for Sound from the Bench. The win by Lamar sparked criticism and many felt the award would lose credibility if winners can be found on the pop charts and not classic venues such as Carnegie Hall. But the discourse around Lamar’s new album shows that he is indeed a cultural icon and a modern day poet. 

This noticeable shift has left many questioning whether the Pulitzer Prize is selecting winners to reflect the times, or merely choosing to be controversial for some much needed publicity.

This year, once again the Pulitzer surprised critics with the announcement of the 2022 Pulitzer fiction prize. Awarding The Netanyahus (Fitzcarraldo Editions), by Joshua Cohen as the overall winner for the Pulitzer in fiction. 

The book follows Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian at a prestigious university in upstate New York in the 1960s. When Benzion Netanyahu shows up for an interview, his rowdy family unexpectedly in tow, Blum is obliged to be their reluctant host. Mixing fiction with non-fiction, the campus novel with the lecture, The Netanyahus is a wildly inventive, genre-bending comedy about blending, identity and politics.

The novel is loosely based on a real-life visit by Benzion Netanyahu, a mediaeval historian and the former Israel prime minister Benjamin’s father, to the United States. The story on which the novel is based, was related to Cohen by the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom, who hosted the real-life Netanyahus.

Cohen revealed he struggled to get the book published with many big US publishers turning it down. It was only less than two years ago that the book found a home, and got published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in May 2021.

When asked about winning the fiction Pulitzer Prize Cohen said, ‘I can only hope that American publishers will once again start taking the risk on literature that the Pulitzers just took –– a risk for which I’m grateful.’

Is the Pulitzer truly taking a risk or, are they avoiding further criticism similar to other awards by shining the spotlight on younger artists and creators?  Aren’t award-winning journalists and musicians not meant to mirror their current society? 

If taking a risk means rethinking a model that has been used for over 100 years, then we commend the Pulitzer Prize Board for moving us all forward.

For the full list of this year’s prizes visit  https://www.pulitzer.org/

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Gugulethu Tshabalala
Gugulethu Tshabalala, is a multi-talented creative and jewellery designer with a background in public relations. She believes there is an artist in all of us and hopes to evoke emotion utilising different mediums.

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