The Pulitzer Prize Changed His Life

Reviews called it a “Whitman-like multiplicity”; an “absurdist tour de force that might have been written by a Kafka or Genet.” It’s been the recipient of the Carnegie Medal, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Fiction, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and this past spring, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer straddles a place between American perception and Vietnamese to retell the story of the Vietnam war in a gripping confessional-style narrative. “His book fills a void in the literature”, The New York Times reviewed, “giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.”  

Image courtesy of NYT

But the gap between creating his work of fiction and reaching recognition is a large leap, Nguyen shares in a piece he wrote for the Guardian: “that disconnect between the act of writing […] and the existence of the writing in the world.” What happens between creation and credit involves a massive change to the perception of an author’s work – commercially and personally. New readers are directed towards the book, your name is elevated to a higher status, and with praise and prominence comes its ugly shadow: a new set of author expectations. It’s the less glitzy side of prize culture that isn’t often talked about. It’s what Nguyen refers to as “the weight of that touch on my shoulder.”

With the prestige of prize winning comes the inability to return to the world of quiet isolation that shaped the masterpiece. Marked for Nguyen by a daily routine comprised of four hours of writing and an hour on the treadmill, his quiet isolation was brought to a tapered end when his novel was completed and his son was born two days after. He recalls after the excitement of finishing his book (and becoming a father) he felt loneliness: sitting in hotel rooms awaiting book signings and readings, being alone in another hotel room when he got the call from his publicist about the Pulitzer. Despite the success of his book, “the dream remains of returning to that anonymous space where I can find my next story and that story can find me. Anonymous, because when I wrote my novel, no one cared who I was, and I could say whatever I wanted. The only thing that mattered was the story.”

His experience brings to question what awards mean, beyond recognition, commercial value, and the entire body of readers who pick up a winner’s book. How a book is valued and what it’s valued for has a ripple effect onto how we think of an author. What is expected of the writer changes. A quiet life of writing isn’t quite as quiet anymore. Once the pinnacle of ‘success’ has been wrestled into an author’s hands, the “private joy,” as the Guardian calls it, often recedes, or at least this seems to be a troubling side effect for Nguyen. 

As he says at the beginning of the article, prior to The Sympathizer, Nguyen “suffered for more than a decade writing a short-story collection where every sentence was either labour or punishment.” As many writers are probably familiar with, the joy of writing comes in spells. Much like reading too, you can hit a rut that’s extremely difficult to tackle. Out of boredom, fear, or lack of creative enthusiasm, either task can feel completely draining and not worth the effort. But much like the birth of Nguyen’s first novel, the joy can blister open again. It’s a cyclic process of give and take that requires much patience, but matched with the pressure to create again at the same caliber, the rut seems to be even deeper and more difficult to dig yourself out of.

Writers tend to be quiet creatures, but the bout of celebrity-like fame that comes with awards can fit awkwardly with this nature. “After the bright lights of the convention center and the conference room, after the bonhomie and the darting glances at the prestige markers on the name tag,” Nguyen writes for the LA Times, we’d hope “we can at last return to our caves, reassured in the solitude we share with others.

Featured image courtesy of LA Times.