01/26/2012 12:58 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

A Factual History of Pulitzer-Winning Fiction

Seeking some compelling mid-winter reading? Try perusing the list of books that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction! The winners, as you'll see in the links below, range from classic novels to now-obscure books.

I'd like to hear your thoughts about which Pulitzer-winning titles deserved or didn't deserve that honor over the years, and which non-winners should have won. But first, some info and my own thoughts!

The Pulitzers -- whose deadline for 2012 contest entries was Jan. 25 for journalism and last Oct. 1 for fiction -- started in 1917. In the category we're talking about today, there are actually two winner lists: Novels (1917-1947) and Fiction (1948-present); the renaming that took place more than 60 years ago made short-story collections eligible.

Famous Pulitzer-winning novels include titles such as Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (honored in 1921), John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (1947), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1983), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1988), among others.

Now-obscure winners? There are many to choose from, but here are four: Ernest Poole's His Family (1918), Margaret Wilson's The Able McLaughlins (1924), Harold L. Davis' Honey in the Horn (1936), and Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness (1962).

Several novels were saved from possible obscurity after being turned into notable films. One example is Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, the 1919 Pulitzer winner that eventually inspired the 1942 movie directed by Orson Welles.

Then there are famous authors who won the Pulitzer for books that many feel weren't their best work. For instance, Willa Cather's good World War I-themed novel One of Ours received the prestigious prize in 1923, but her magnificent My Antonia did not in 1919. William Faulkner won in 1955 for A Fable, but not for previous titles such as As I Lay Dying. Saul Bellow nabbed the 1976 Pulitzer for Humboldt's Gift, but not for earlier novels such as The Adventures of Augie March.

Were those honors belated consolation prizes? Do Pulitzer judges wait until American authors (entrants have to be U.S. citizens) build a larger canon before honoring them? Perhaps. But several authors did win for their first (and sometimes only) book; among those titles were Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1937), Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1961), and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies short-story collection (2000). (Ms. Lahiri subsequently wrote The Namesake novel.)

Of course, there are head-scratching omissions, such as no Pulitzer for F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby is an all-time classic and whose later Tender Is the Night was also worthy. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible richly deserved the prize, too, but was a 1999 Pulitzer runner-up to Michael Cunningham's superb but not quite as good The Hours.

Why are some Pulitzer-winning authors, unlike famous non-recipient F. Scott, little known today? Tastes change, and there are years where a weak field of entrants can result in a relatively weak winner. In several cases, winners didn't merit the honor under any circumstances! Award results can be puzzling, whether it involves the Pulitzers or other prizes.

That said, I think the Pulitzer judges do often get it right with their fiction choices -- such as this century's picks of Ms. Lahiri's aforementioned collection, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2001), Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (2003), Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2007), and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008).

Those are my thoughts on the not-so-brief, sometimes-wondrous life of the Pulitzer fiction category.