Thursday, April 21, 2016

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer: from overlooked to Pulitzer winner

This year’s Pulitzers have been awarded to books that, while highly praised, were not the most talked-about of last year. Thanks to the prize, that is set to change

Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the prize for fiction for his debut novel.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the prize for fiction for his debut novel. Photograph: Pulitzer board/handout/EPA
The awarding 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 fall to rave reviews, didn’t exactly become a conversation-starter. Literary types spent most of the fall 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 today’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 many newspaper book reviews’ best-of lists. It won or was shortlisted for a few other prizes. But other than that, it was overlooked.

But book awards, in America at least, 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.   MORE

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