Tuesday, April 17, 2012

News: No Pulitzer Prize in Fiction - My Thoughts

Well, my four posts predicting the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction were for naught, the Pulitzer Board chose not to award the prize this year. Immediately after the announcement, my Twitter feed exploded with dismay from publicists, reviewers, and avid readers. Still, a no-award year is not unprecedented. Since the inception of the prize, it has gone unawarded eleven times, including three times in the 1970s. And yet, since the last no-award year was in 1977, some people thought the no-award practice had ended.

The lack of an award is a function of how the Pulitzer is chosen. As I mentioned in one of my prediction posts, the prize is awarded through a two-step process. First, a jury comprised of reviewers, authors and/or academics (usually three people) review submitted books and choose three finalists. Then, those three finalists are passed on the full Pulitzer Board, a body of approximately twenty. The Board has full discretion to choose a winner. The lack of an award shows that the Board was unable to reach a majority vote any of the finalists.
One thing to note: the Board is mostly comprised of journalists; there is only one author/literary person: Junot Díaz. In one of my previous posts, I wrote that I thought that journalists might scoff at a very “literary” finalist, such as Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and thus choose something more “accessible.” In the end, I don’t think the jury’s chosen finalists even gave the Board the chance to choose an excellent and accessible book. 

In fact, the finalists left me scratching my head, and not merely because I totally struck out with my predictions! The finalists were, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, a novella which had previously been published in a literary magazine; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, a debut novel which, in my opinion, was simply “okay”; and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, which was published as “unfinished.” Given the choices of the jury, I am not surprised that the Board couldn’t agree on a winner.  They didn’t have a fully fleshed out, above average novel, or even a full collection of short stories, to choose from.

Thus, I do not fault the choice of the Board not to award the prize, but I do question the choices of the jury. I am most shocked to see Open City ignored as a finalist. I thought it was much more serious and thought-provoking than Swamplandia! Compared to recent years, 2011 was, no doubt, a weak year when it came to Pulitzer-eligible books—those by an American author which dealt with “American themes.” Still, I think there were better options than the ones the jury made. I wrote extensively about six in my prediction posts, but I will offer two more. Even though I thought that the narrative of the PEN/Faulkner-winning and National Book Award-nominated, The Buddha in the Attic was a little bit too “cute,” I would have preferred to have seen it as a finalist. The same is true with the National Book Award-winning, but flawed, Salvage the Bones.  

Although, I just indicted the jury, I will give them an “out.” Any judged award, regardless of the discipline, is subject to the idiosyncrasies of the judges. There is no such thing as objectively good art. This was evident in the nominations of the other three major literary awards: the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Each award chooses five books as finalists. Between the 15 slots, 13 books different books were chosen. (It is true that some of the awards allow foreign authors, and do not have a “preferably about American life” mandate, but put that aside.) Most of all, none of these books were among the Pulitzer finalists. I have no doubt that the jury advanced the books it thought were most worthy, without any ulterior motives. I am just commenting that I would have made different decisions.

The Pulitzer is the only major literary award that chooses to pass on awarding the prize when the competitors “fall below the standard of excellence.” (language from Pulitzer website.) In not awarding the prize, the Pulitzer Board shows that it will not sacrifice its values to meet the desires of the publishing industry. Publishers love the Pulitzer because winners are virtually guaranteed to sell many books, for years to come. But the Pulitzer is more than an economic benefit to publishers; it is also a helpful guide to readers.  The Pulitzer often directs non-serious readers to interesting books which they might not have otherwise read. Thus, readers are also major losers in a no-award year. And yet, pushing readers toward quality literature is merely a result of the prize, not its mission. It should not be a consideration of the Pulitzer Board, and obviously was not.

A very good post from Bookriot argues that the lack of an award should not be a comment on the state of American fiction. The author argues that while 2011 was, somewhat, weak, 2010 was a strong year and 2012 is looking to be strong also. I concur. I would be shocked if the Pulitzer Board declined to award the prize next year.

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