What’s bigger news than the awarding of a major prize? The decision not to award a major prize. The literary world is agog with the news that the Pulitzer prize for fiction will not be awarded in 2012, for the first time in 35 years.
Why? The Pulitzer board couldn’t reach a consensus on the three books nominated by the judges: Karen Russell’s idiosyncratic, wildly imaginative debut Swamplandia, David Foster Wallace’s posthumously completed The Pale King, and Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams (first published, in full, in the Paris Review in 2002, first published in book form in 2011).
‘I don’t think any decision like this is a statement about literature or fiction in general,’ Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer prizes, told ABC’s PM yesterday. ‘I don’t think you should extrapolate from that some sweeping statement about the nature [or] condition of fiction in America.’
‘Most readers will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction,’ writes Ann Patchett in the New York Times today. ‘As a novelist and the author of an eligible book, I do not love this. It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one.’
Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, was released in 2011. (She may take some comfort from the fact it was included in this year’s Orange shortlist, announced today.)
Former Pulitzer fiction judge Laura Miller, a senior writer for Salon, believes that the result may say more about the the state of American reading in 2012 than the quality of American fiction published in 2011 (she calls it ‘an exceptional year’).
The Pulitzer is unusual in that there is an extra tier of decision-making above the level of the three judges (usually an academic, a critic and a writer), who come up with three titles to recommend to the Pulitzer Board, who pick the actual winner.
The board consists not of literary insiders, but of working journalists and journalism professors, ‘most with a deep respect for literature but relatively little familiarity with the literary world’.
While this is one of the prize’s strengths, says Miller (including its ‘excellent record at singling out literary works that also appeal to a lot of readers’), it is also a limitation.
‘Past boards might have been able to settle on a title that most of them had read even if it wasn’t offered as a finalist by the jury; reading at least a few of the ‘big’ novels published during the year was something a lot more people did before the internet and cable TV came along’.
Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of the Australian, agrees. ‘What’s happened is a disconnect between … reading communities and the people who actually it falls on to decide the award,’ he told PM.
Miller concludes that the fact that the board – representatives of the average educated American reader – don’t read widely enough to agree on an alternate choice when they disagree with the three books put forward, is the really worrying thing about this year’s lack of a Pulitzer winner.
The fiction jury was comprised of Michael Cunningham (who won a Pulitzer for The Hours in 1999), former books editor Susan Larson and critic Maureen Corrigan.
‘When I heard, the first word that went through my head was “inexplicable”. Then the second reaction was just anger on behalf of those three novels,’ Corrigan told the New York Times.
Susan Larson told NPR that all three judges are ‘shocked, angry and very disappointed’. She said, ‘This was a lot of work … I think we all would have been happy if any of [the three] books had been selected’.
There was speculation that the Pulitzer board might have considered the selected titles to be too unconventional to be worthy of a Pulitzer.
Reacting to this, Corrigan said, ‘If they didn’t think these three nominations were somehow within the regulations that they have set out, then they should have made that clear at the time we nominated them.’
John Mullan, a former Booker prize judge, told the Guardian that withholding the UK’s top literary prize is ‘absolutely never an option’. He said, ‘You go into it with the knowledge that some years are better than others. Some are very good, some are duff, and you just pray you get a good year.’
The Pulitzer for fiction has been withheld ten times since its inception in 1917, and three times during the 1970s.
Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin, has been withheld twice, in 1973 and 1983. There was also controversy over last year’s uncharacteristically short shortlist, of just three novels (out of a longlist of nine.
‘If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,’ said Ann Patchett, who opened a bookshop, Parnassus Books, in Nashville last year.
She pointed out that the Pulitzer sells books like no other literary prize – and that with both the bookselling and publishing businesses increasingly under pressure, it’s particularly bad timing to withhold the prize.
‘I can’t imagine there was ever a year we were so in need of the excitement it creates in readers.’
‘The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction.’
‘This was the year we all lost.’
In the absence of a Pulitzer-picked fiction winner, many commentators are stepping in to suggest their own picks.
Ann Patchett’s favourites include Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award – and Dennis Johnson’s Train Dreams, one of the three titles nominated by the Pulitzer fiction judges.
Ron Charles, fiction editor of the Washington Post (And Totally Hip Book Reviewer), tweeted, ‘I think it’s an outrageous insult. Only one finished real novel among the finalists, AND they can’t pick a winner. DO YOUR FRAKKIN' JOB.’ He added, ‘Incidentally, I would have been perfectly happy with SWAMPLANDIA! winning. Wasn’t my absolute favorite, but would have been a reasonable choice.’
His top picks were Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River or Mary Doria Russell’s Doc.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot was seen as another worthy alternative by both Patchett and Charles.
Publisher’s Weekly has published a list of ‘the good books the Pulitzer didn’t pick’.
What are your picks? What do you think of the decision to award no prize?
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