PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Two Brown alumni — Class of 1992 graduate Andrew Sean Greer and Class of 1988 alumnus James Forman Jr. — were among the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners announced on Monday, April 16.
The Pulitzer for Fiction went to Greer for his fifth novel, “Less,” the story of a failed novelist nearing 50 who finds a way to go on a world tour of obscure literary events to avoid attending his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. The Washington Post called the book “laugh-till-you-can’t-breathe funny,” noting that serious, even “funereal” novels are the usual Pulitzer fare.
Forman won the Pulitzer for General Nonfiction for his first book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” about the role black leaders unwittingly played in the eventual mass incarceration of black men. The New York Times called Forman’s book “superb and shattering.”
Awarded since 1917, the Pulitzer is one of the top honors in journalism, literature and music composition.
A serious novel turned funny
When Greer started writing “Less,” he was thinking of it as a serious look at being gay and aging. Instead, he found that humor — “making fun of myself,” as he told the Washington Post this week — took it closer to real emotion. It was the first gay main character for Greer, who in 2009 had the New York Times feature his cozy Sunday routine with his spouse, David Ross, their pug, Olive, his twin brother Mike and baby nephew Arlo.
In 2013, the literary magazine Tin House asked Greer how he’d avoided being labeled a “gay writer” and how he dealt with criticism within the LGBT community for not having written a gay protagonist: “There is a fear inside me, I admit, that I am both about to plummet out of the public eye for something too ‘homo,’ and that I’m not bravely addressing an essential part of my experience,” he said at the time. But Greer’s ultimate reason for not writing a gay main character, he said, was that he feared writing something full of self-pity or clichés, due to being too close to the subject matter. “I’m just still searching for the right novel, the right protagonist, the right style to make something that engages a general reader in the inner lives of gay people,” Greer said. “Not as a political feat, but as an unexplored bit of literary terrain.”
As a student at Brown, Greer studied with Robert Coover, professor emeritus in literary arts, who, Greer told the Brown Alumni Magazine in 2009, “encouraged us to write anything but conventional narrative.” Perhaps accordingly, Greer’s second novel, “The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” is told in the voice of a man who appears to age backwards — though who, unlike Benjamin Button, learns as he goes. John Updike gushed about the novel in the New Yorker in early 2004, calling it “enchanting, in the perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment brought to grandeur by Proust and Nabokov.”
Greer’s third novel, “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells,” which David Leavitt described in the New York Times as being written with “precision and panache,” featured a depressed woman who ends up experiencing time travel due to the effects of electroconvulsive therapy. “Less,” which came out in July 2017, once again earned Greer a gushing New York Times review, as “bedazzling, bewitching and be-wonderful.”
Despite the stellar reviews, “I did not see this coming!” Greer told the San Francisco Chronicle this week, speaking from Italy, where he’s currently working at a writer’s residency.
“I guess I get to meet Kendrick Lamar?” he added, citing the rapper won the Pulitzer Prize for music. Greer admitted to having heard the news just after he’d been “coaxing a pug dog into polka-dot pajamas for the night. And what did I do first thing the morning after I heard the news?” Greer continued. “Take the pajamas off the dog. The pug showed no sense she was impressed by me at all.”
On Twitter, Greer describes “Less” as being “about the foolishness of American myopia, the uneasiness of being gay in the world, the difficulties of love, but most of all it is about joy. A writer friend once said the hardest thing to write about is joy. I took it as a challenge.”
Good intentions and unintended consequences
“Locking Up Our Own” starts with a scene from 1995, when, as a public defender in Washington, D.C., Forman, now a professor at Yale Law School, found himself unable to keep a 15-year-old client out of juvenile detention. He looked around and saw that most everyone in the criminal justice system that was creating a disproportionate number black prisoners were black themselves. “What was going on?” Forman asked. “How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?” He then goes back in time to the War on Drugs in the 1970s to chart how well-meaning members of the black community ended up having a hand in the mass incarceration of black men. “Far from ignoring the issue of crime by blacks against other blacks,” Forman writes, “African-American officials and their constituents have been consumed by it.”
Confronting issues of race and civil rights started early for Forman, who is the son of Civil Rights-era leader James Forman, the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1961 to 1966. (“Don’t let the light skin fool ya,” Forman Jr.’s Twitter bio cautions.) The younger Forman arrived on the Brown campus in time for the black student protests of 1985, which included the occupation of the John Carter Brown library as students demanded that the University recommit itself to unfulfilled diversity promises of previous years. He went on to become involved as a leader in student activism. Sophomore year, he could be found handing out fliers for Divest Brown / Free South Africa in the post office. “I think there might have been people who were tired of getting their mail because they were tired of talking to the Divest people,” Forman told the College Hill Independent in 2013.
In 1987, as a junior at Brown, Forman wrote an op-ed for the Brown Daily Herald decrying what he felt as a sharp decline in student activism since his freshman year. “Perhaps it is the very fact that problematic issues like racism and sexism are still with us that explains the silence on campus,” Forman wrote. More than 30 years later, Forman’s still speaking out. At Yale Law School, he teaches a class called Class, Race and Punishment. A former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Forman also teaches constitutional law.
Professor of law is somewhat of a third career for Forman. In 1997, frustrated with the lack of education and job training opportunities for the clients he served as a public defender, Forman cofounded the Maya Angelou Charter School, to serve school dropouts and youth who had been arrested. The school eventually expanded and in 2007 started running a school inside Washington, D.C.’s juvenile detention center, effecting a turnaround that the court monitor overseeing the city’s juvenile system termed “extraordinary.” Forman taught at Georgetown Law from 2003 to 2011, when he became a professor at Yale. He currently teaches a seminar called Inside Out: Issues in Criminal Justice, in which Yale law students and women incarcerated in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, study together. It’s my favorite class to teach,” Forman told the Connecticut Mirror last week. “It’s very real all the time.”
In addition to many law review articles, Forman has written op-eds and essays for the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Republic, the Nation and the Washington Post. Before winning the Pulitzer, his book garnered effusive praise from many critics, including New York Times book reviewer Jennifer Senior, who tweeted last April that “Locking Up Our Own” was the “best book I’ve read this year.” Forman, who describes himself as a “harried dad,” lives in New Haven with his wife Ify Nwokoye, a nurse practitioner and yoga instructor, and their 8-year old son Emeka, who, Forman says on his book website, “loves sports, travel and defying his parents.”