NEW YORK (AP) — Pulitzer judges upended decades of tradition by awarding its music prize Monday to Kendrick Lamar for his rap album “DAMN.,” a sharp departure from the classical and jazz works the body have consistently favored. The decision, which drew praise and surprise online, quickly overshadowed other arts winners, including Andrew Sean Greer’s win in the fiction category.
The Pulitzers were once so restrictive that an advisory board rejected giving a prize to Duke Ellington. The closest precedent to Lamar’s win came in 2008 when Bob Dylan received an honorary Pulitzer.
The group’s board called Lamar’s album a “virtuosic song collection” and said it captures “the modern African American life.” Classical composers were named as finalists: Michael Gilberton for “Quartet” and Ted Hearne for “Sound from the Bench.”
Greer’s novel “Less” tells the comic story about the misbegotten adventures of a middle-aged novelist. It didn’t receive the same attention as Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” winner of the National Book Award, or George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo.” But it was widely praised as poignant and funny and was ranked among the year’s best by The Washington Post, which called it an “elegantly” told story of a man who “loses everything: his lover, his suitcase, his beard, his dignity.”
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The drama prize went to Martyna Majok “Cost of Living,” a drama featuring four characters, two of them disabled. Caroline Fraser’s work on author Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Prairie Fires,” won for biography. Jack E. Davis’ The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea” won for history, while the general nonfiction prize went to James Forman Jr’s “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”
Frank Bidart’s “Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016,” winner of a National Book Award last fall, received the Pulitzer for poetry. Bidart, who turns 80 next month, is one of the country’s most acclaimed poets and has been a Pulitzer finalist before. His previous works include “Desire” and Star Dust.”
“Everything I’ve done is in that book, so it really does mean a lot,” Bidart said Monday. “It means more than any of the times I’ve been a finalist in the past.”
Lamar hardly needed the help , but Pulitzers often boost sales for winning authors, playwrights and musicians and ensure attention for future works. They can serve as the summation of a long career, such as Bidart’s, or help establish a younger artist.
The Pulitzers judges wrote that Forman’s work draws on “vast experience and deep knowledge of the legal system, and its often-devastating consequences for citizens and communities of color.” Forman told The Associated Press on Monday that he felt there was a “complexity in the African-American experience that wasn’t being represented in the literature.
“On many topics, black voices are either relegated to the sidelines or there’s a single character who is called to stand in for the black view,” he said.
Fraser told the AP that she had written about Wilder in the past and has been a fan of her books since she was a girl growing up on Mercer Island, just outside Seattle. She also acknowledged criticism of how American Indians have been portrayed in Wilder’s “Little House On the Prairie” novels.
“To be sure, she repeats various slurs. For starters, there’s the infamous, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,'” she said Monday. “‘Little House on the Prairie,’ in particular, is a very complex work in that regard and I think it tells us a lot about ourselves — if we came from white settlement, if we live in the West, if we have ties to that past. I think it remains a really important work in terms of telling us who we were.”
The American Library Association is considering changing the name of an award in Wilder’s name over “racist and anti-Native sentiments” that are not “universally embraced.”
Davis, who teaches history at the University of Florida, grew up along the Gulf Coast and said that it concerned him that the Gulf was little known to Americans beyond BP oil spill of 2010.
“I feel that the spill robbed the Gulf of its true identity,” he told the AP. “It’s very much part of the larger American historical narrative but if you look at most school texts it’s not even listed in the index.”
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Noveck and Leanne Italie contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show the title of Greer’s novel is “Less” not “Fearless.”