Education

2 novels shared the Pulitzer Prize this year – here’s why they’re so relevant for our times

 Pulitzer Prize books can shine a light on less-well known areas of American life relevant to all.

Pulitzer Prize books can shine a light on less-well known areas of American life relevant to all. Image: Unsplash/Timothy Eberly

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • For the first time, two novels shared the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • 2023’s winners were Trust by Hernan Diaz and Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.
  • Both novels examine our relationship with money and poverty.

Poverty in America and a look at wealth in 1920s New York are the themes that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

For the first time in the Prize’s 106-year history, two novels shared the award: Trust by Hernan Diaz and Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara, set in an Indian village in the 1950s, was a finalist.

Pulitzer Prize winners of 2023.
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winners. Image: Pulitzer Prize

As we navigate a period of economic uncertainty, slowing growth and a cost-of-living crisis, it seemed telling that the novels both examined our relationship with money. Demon Copperhead resets Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to Lee County, Virginia, and a boy born in a deprived neighbourhood to a single mother in a trailer.

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Wealth, power and facts

“Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society,” the Pulitzer Prize judges said. “Those problems have yet to be solved in ours.”

Trust is set amid the wealth and excess of the 1920s and looks at the cost of acquiring wealth. It also tackles another key theme of our current era: truth and reliable sources.

“At once an immersive story and a brilliant literary puzzle, Trust engages the reader in a quest for the truth while confronting the deceptions that often live at the heart of personal relationships, the reality-warping force of capital, and the ease with which power can manipulate facts,” the judges said.

Importance of literacy

Reading has many benefits, including being linked to educational outcomes and mental health well-being. The World Economic Forum's Book Club features a book each month and invites readers worldwide to discuss a variety of fiction and non-fiction books.

Good literacy at an early age improves academic achievement and leads to greater opportunities of all kinds in adulthood, according to the UK charity, School Readers. Even so, the National Literacy Trust estimated that there are 7.1 million functionally illiterate adults in the UK alone.

Around the world, literacy rates are rising, but there are stark regional disparities. The youth literacy rate increased to 92% in 2020, from 87% in 2000, according to the United Nations, but the regions of South Asia, West and Central Africa, and Eastern and Southern Africa account for 87% of illiterate youth aged 15 to 24 globally.

Graphs showing the number of illiterate youth ages 15 to 24 years, by region (in millions), 2020.
Illiteracy varies by region. Image: UN

While books that win the Pulitzer Prize are likely to be read by educated people, the topics they cover can shine a light on less well-known areas of American life and examine themes that are relevant for us all.

“Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story,” the judges said. “Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.”

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