Did life change for you after winning the Pulitzer Prize?
Some Pulitzer winners—novelists—have confided to me that getting the prize screwed them up. It messed with their heads. That hasn't been my experience. Obviously, with the long slog that writing Middlesex was, it was immensely gratifying to have something to show for it. The night I won, I was in Prague, and as news spread around the hotel, women ran up to give me kisses. It was the closest I'll ever get to winning the Tour de France.
On a more serious level, winning a prize like the Pulitzer changes your life not at all. The daily act of writing remains as demanding and maddening as it was before, and the pleasure you get from writing—rare but profound—remains at the true heart of the enterprise. On their best days, writers all over the world are winning Pulitzers, all alone in their studios, with no one watching. The grail remains interior.
Aside from spasms of triumph, this thing called "success " isn't much, really. Everybody in America is after it, of course. It's the national imperative. But "success" is a curiously vacant state. Success doesn't happen to you. It happens out in the world somewhere. It happens to a public persona not equivalent to the person who writes the books. Success is a kind of numbness, an analgesic. It feels like nothing. Failure, envy, these things have a far keener, physiological effect. No Iago for Success exists. Who is the Iago of Success? Nobody. Because the baser emotions are more fiery, and success, if anything, a temporary shelter from them.
A writer who gets 10 rave reviews and one negative review will only remember the negative review.
Kingsley Amis said perhaps the only thing you can say about literary prizes. He said, "They're nice when you win them." And they are. They are nice when you win them. Hopefully, winning a prize draws off the bile a bit, lances the boil of overweening ambition. Winning a prize, if it does anything, should make you more generous toward other writers' achievements and more stoic during the difficult times no prize can protect you against.
A Conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides continues...