No Good Novels in 2011? For the First Time in 35 years, the Pulitzer Committee Declines Award for Fiction
Author: Victoria Brownworth
April 17, 2012
Once you’ve been nominated for a Pulitzer, you’re re-wired to anticipate that April day every year when the announcements are made. It’s crushing when you don’t win, yet it truly is an honour to be nominated. Ever-after it’s part of your resume, part of your persona.
I was in my 20s when I received my first Pulitzer nomination for investigative reporting for an expose on corruption in Philadelphia. I was euphoric. I was fortunate enough to be nominated again after that first time, but while I won numerous other journalism awards, I never won that tantalizing and coveted Pulitzer Prize. Thus, April often was indeed the cruelest month.
The feeling of nervous anticipation is awesome, but once the announcements are made, you know who the winner is and you can raise a glass–or an eyebrow–and move on.
Not this year. For all those novelists who were lucky (and talented) enough to be nominees for the fiction award, the finality of a winner isn’t there. Because there isn’t one. It’s unsettling.
It was a real WTF moment for the literary world. Most of us Pulitzer watchers thought the prize would go to David Foster Wallace for his novel, The Pale King, which was published posthumously last year. Wallace, who suffered from crippling life-long depression, hanged himself in 2008. He was 45.
The Pulitzer committee announced that there had been three finalists–Wallace, Karen Russell for Swamplandia! and Denis Johnson for Train Dreams.(Johnson was also a finalist in 2008 for “Tree of Smoke.”)
In declining to give the award, the Pulitzer Board noted that none of the three finalists had garnered a majority vote.
I’ve been a judge for various literary awards over the years, including the Lambda Awards, which I have judged every year but one. The role of a judge is succinct: You pick a group of finalists and from those, a winner. A person is chosen to judge because s/he is a writer, editor or in some other way associated with writing. They know writing. They read extensively in the field in which they are judging.
I think it’s shocking that the judges did not take their responsibility seriously enough. A literary jury is like any other jury–you sit in the room until you have a final vote. You don’t abdicate your responsibility.
This has happened before, however. The fiction award has been given since 1918; over those 94 years, no award was given 11 times. The most recent instance was in 1977 when Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It was chosen by the committee but the Pulitzer Board, which has the power to override the choice, chose to do so and the award was not given. In 1941, Ernest Hemingway’s anti-war, anti-fascist novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was chosen but considered “offensive” by the president of Columbia University, which gives the prize, and so no prize was awarded that year, either.
Posthumous awards have been given before–to James Agee in 1958 for his stunning novel based on his father’s death when he was six, A Death in the Family (read it if you haven’t) and to John Kennedy Toole for his comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Like Wallace, Toole had suffered from severe depression and committed suicide in 1969. His mother, Thelma, worked arduously to get his final novel published, which it was in 1980, winning the Pulitzer in 1981.
So precedence existed for giving Wallace the award. And unlike Toole, Wallace had a large body of work, had won a MacArthur “genius” grant at 32, had been teaching writing for 20 years at the time of his death and was considered an author who had developed his own sub-genre of post-modernist literature. Would it really have been such a stretch to give him the award?
Or what of Johnson? If he was a finalist for the second time in three years –and thus with two separate committees–then isn’t it possible that this was his year, if Wallace wasn’t the choice?
Russell is the youngest of the finalists, at 31 she’s half Johnson’s age and Swamplandia! is her first novel. But the book was also short-listed for the Orange Prize and was on the New York Times top ten list for 2011. Toole was 31 when he killed himself and Wallace was already thoroughly established as a writer at that age. She could have won.
I can imagine the discussion by the jury over these three choices–Wallace was dead, Johnson had been a finalist before, this was Russell’s first novel, but highly acclaimed. Which should we choose?
What I can’t understand is the lack of a final decision.
Some people don’t like awards. In 1926, Sinclair Lewis was chosen for the Pulitzer for his now-classic novel Arrowsmith, but declined the award. Still, at least he was given the option.
Like everyone who has won–or lost–an award, I have mixed feelings about them. It’s good to be a nominee/finalist, great to be a winner, not so wonderful to lose, unsettling to be judged. Yet I like the principle of giving people recognition for the hard work that propels talent to the next place. In the many years I have taught writing, I have seen a lot of serious talent, but not as much of the cold discipline required to take talent to fruition.
What concerns me about awards, however, was codified in this Pulitzer debacle: I’m sure about why awards are a good thing, less sure of how the determinations of who gets them is made. The story of John Kennedy Toole, for example, makes one wonder if it was his tragic death that got his book published and the award given, or his nascent talent. Yet what I do know is that having awards like the Pulitzer keeps writing and books in the public eye, which is essential in these days when everyone who has a blog site or enough money to self-publish thinks they are a serious writer.
What bothers me most about the decision not to decide by the Pulitzer committee is that I personally think Wallace should have won. In scanning over the 83 novels that have won the Pulitzer since its inception, I was struck by how many I had read–68. More than a dozen are books I have taught over the years. A few, like the Agee novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence or Toni Morrison’s Beloved are among my favorite books. I re-read The Collected Stories of John Cheever regularly and never cease to be struck by his depth and nuance.
A few years ago, when I was going through some books that had belonged to my now-deceased mother, I found her copy of Gone with the Wind. Her bookplate with her maiden name in her neat script was pasted on the inside cover with the year–1951–that she purchased it, while a freshman at Wellesley. On the back cover was the tagline–“Pulitzer Prize winner.”
I wonder if I would ever have read Booth Tarkington had he not been a Pultizer winner. Or Conrad Richter. Or even Herman Wouk. Because the prize does matter–it leads readers to books that s/he might never pick up otherwise. I love Junot Diaz, and have favorite stories of his that I teach regularly, but how many people read his books prior to his Pulitzer win? Conversely, I was forced to read Saul Bellow in college and hated every word, baffled by his Pulitzer. And I question how it is that the most prolific American writer of the 20th century, Joyce Carol Oates, could have been a finalist so many times and yet have never won.
But it is these mysteries of the awards processes–the finalists, the winners, the also-rans–which make those days leading up to that April day so unnerving, yet compelling. And a year like this one so fraught with outrage and a cloying sense of injustice.
I wish there had been a winner this year. I’m not sure how many novels were short-listed before they were winnowed down to that select and impressive three. But that there was no winner leaves every writer in Americaat a loss. We should be able to point to the solidifying of Wallace’s legacy, or the promise of Russell’s or the appreciation of Johnson’s. But instead, in the words of Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there.
Those of us who judge the work of others, be it as critics or in some award venue like the Pulitzers or the Lammys, have a weighty responsibility. I reviewed many of the Pulitzer finalists and winners of the last 20 years in my role as book critic at the Baltimore Sun. Many of those books have quotes from my reviews on them. I stand behind the criticism I have written over the years because I am writing about the book, not the writer, the quality, not the quantity, the ephemeral nature of what elevates one book above its peers in any given year. When we judge books publicly, we need to stand by those choices. The Pulitzer committee did not do that.
That the Pulitzer committee did not finish the task they were given is a slap in the face to the three finalists as well as to the other nominees. But mostly it’s a slap in the face to American letters. There is no year without good books; 2011 was not some anomaly. But it is to be hoped that the furor over this lapse on the part of the Pulitzers will serve to draw attention to the finalists, their books and the other superb novels that came out last year–some of which won awards and more of which did not.
It’s never easy to not win the Pulitzer because some other writer has. But to not win to no one–that’s insupportably wrong and the Pulitzer committee deserves all the outrage writers across America can muster.