No Pulitzer for fiction has been awarded for this year. You’ve probably heard this multiple times; maybe you’ve read the headlines in the New York Times and the Huffington Post. Many writers (and readers) are horrified at the Pulitzer jurors’ rationale that no new fiction was worthy of this estimable prize. And they have a right to be. In a time when the publishing world is on shaky ground, it is irresponsible and even dangerous for the Pulitzer committee to suggest that no single piece of recent fiction can be deemed a great American work of art.
To understand the Pulitzer committee’s judgment, let’s take a quick look back at the history of the Pulitzer for Fiction. Since its inception in 1918, the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (originally named the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel), had averaged about two non-award years per decade until the 1980s. That means that, until about thirty years ago, it was still fairly common to not award a prize in fiction. Did this mean that no deserving fiction was published in that year? Not even close. Some of the works of fiction passed over by the Pulitzer jury in favor of not awarding any prize include Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (which was deemed too offensive to be recognized) in 1941 and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in 1974. It seems obvious in hindsight that these famous rebuffs were at least partly politically motivated.
This year, as in past years, three “jurors” picked three books to include on a shortlist: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, The Pale King by the late great David Foster Wallace, and previously nominated Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. After nominating the shortlist contenders, these jurors – picked from “experts” in the literary field – have no further say in the selection process. The final say is given by the Pulitzer board – composed mostly of journalists with a smattering of former Pulitzer winners (for the full list of 2012 jurors, see here: 2012 Pulitzer Board. I think it is important to underline the fact that the same Pulitzer board selects winners from all categories and is made up almost entirely of journalists and not novelists and other fiction writers. In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, one of the jurors, Maureen Corrigan, writes: “We were invited to serve on the jury because we’re recognized as being, in some way literary experts. Why, then, turn the final decision over to a board primarily composed of non-literary folk?”
Christopher Caldwell, in his piece in the Financial Times, answers this question simply. He writes: “One suspects the force that is emptying newsrooms has something to do with whatever it is that leaves Pulitzer judges indifferent to fiction” (The Decline and Fall of America’s Literary Ecosystem). Given the increasing concentration of the Pulitzer committee on journalism over fiction and the make-up of the Pulitzer board, it is easy to agree with him. Anyone who has intimately seen the depth of the crisis in the publishing world must sympathize with this last-ditch attempt to bring journalism once again to the forefront of any discussion not involving panic and economic crisis. However, no good has been done in neglecting to award an author this year with the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; it’s not good for authors, not good for the publishing world, and especially not good for readers who are clinging to the hope that books will not only continue to exist but continue to be treasured.
By the way, Swamplandia! is an amazing work of fiction that should be recognized for its many strengths (among a few weaknesses) and the opaque The Pale King has been praised by Michiko Kakutani as “breathtakingly beautiful”. Some other works of literature I hoped would have been recognized by the jurors include Teju Cole’s Open City and Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name.
What about you? What books do you think deserved to win a Pulitzer Prize this year?
Elizabeth Schmermund is a writer from Long Island, New York. She is the author of the upcoming Eat Pluribus Unum column and an anxious pre-doctoral student in comparative literature.
Agree? Disagree? Post your comments below and check here for the counter-point from Brandon Melendez.