Joyce Carol Oates’s 1969 novel, them, won the National Book Award in 1970; but it is not widely known that the book was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that same year.
In fact, the Pulitzer Prize Jury felt that them was the “best novel of 1969” and unanimously recommended that the award be given to Oates. Nonetheless, the Pulitzer Prize Board voted to give the award to Jean Stafford instead.
From the jury report for the 1970 award:
“Equally assured [as Jean Stafford] but more venturesome in scope and sweep is Joyce Carol Oates, a young writer whose novel ‘Them,’ pleased us all. The latest in a series of distinctively American stories, it follows the fortunes of a blue-collar Midwestern family from the Depression to the Detroit riots, using a variety of styles which oscillate between naturalism and nightmare. As one juror pointed out, it possesses the attributes we as a people prize highly — vigor, vitality, drive. Where so many of the younger novelists feel their way and falter, Miss Oates plows ahead, affirming where others merely muse. She is aware that society is racked by problems and faces them boldly. In the words of one juror, ‘Them’ is a combination of American dream and American nightmare. ‘Miss Oates has Dreiser’s understanding of our society and much of his strength but she writes better.’”
“For its insights, its characterization, its sense of time and place, and its vivid picture of that segment of American society which lives between violence and despair, ‘Them’ seems to us the best novel of 1969.”
“We therefore recommend that the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction be awarded to Joyce Carol Oates for ‘Them,’ with Jean Stafford’s ‘Collected Stories’ as first runner-up and John Cheever’s ‘Bullet Park’ as second runner-up.” —Pulitzer Prize Jury
See: Fischer, Heinz D. and Erika J. Fischer. Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction: Discussions, Decisions and Documents. München: Saur, 2007.
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.
As a writer who also writes things that people read and then tell me that the piece was too heavy duty, too many bad words, but also how good it is, I think that writers who write things that are too real, too feasible, with no safety nets, scare people who do not wish to acknowledge that side of life. Even though it exists without a doubt, and if anything, is becoming a much larger portion of reality for all of us, even those safely tucked away in mansions with security guards. In an ostrich like way, society jams their heads in the sands of hiding behind their electronic devices and big headphones (I can’t hear you! I can’t see you! So you’re not there!). It is much better to show the nightmares. If nothing else, it may ready some of us who need to see what is really happening. Facing real life and putting it out there is the only way to write for us, but sometimes (often), it costs us.