The words were chilling enough to freeze the very ink in novelists’ pens: No award given.
That’s the decision of this year’s Pulitzer Prize committee for fiction. While $10,000 kudos were given to winners in biography, drama, history, general non-fiction and poetry, the words “No award” stand to the right of the fiction category at the Pulitzer’s website. Since 1948, the Pulitzer has been Not Given to fiction six other times—the last instance was in 1977. In deciding the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a jury of three distinguished writers/critics (this year: Maureen Corrigan, the book critic on NPR's Fresh Air; the novelist Michael Cunningham; and Susan Larson, former book editor at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans) recommends a shortlist of titles to the 18-member Pulitzer Prize board, which then goes into a huddle to choose the winner.
This year, the board took these titles into the huddle:
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Swamplandia! By Karen Russell
The jurors passed their recommendations to the Pulitizer Prize Board which subsequently decided not to decide on a winner. They said, essentially, no work of fiction published in 2011 was worthy of the Pulitzer.
I’ve read all three jury-recommended books and while they had their faults, each of them also was a good example of what works well in modern fiction: Johnson showed us how to compress an entire life (and the scope of an entire Western epic) into 128 short pages; Wallace demonstrated how the minutia of filing and processing income taxes could be alternately thrilling and boring but rarely uninteresting; and Russell took what could have been a standard coming-of-age tale and turned it into something odd and heartbreaking. None of these books deserved the cold shoulder. And, right now, I can think of at least another dozen works of fiction published in the last year which easily earned shortlist consideration. In fact, I stand by my conviction that 2011 was one of the most exciting, vibrant years of fiction I’ve seen in at least a decade.
So why the snub? Was the board saying these particular books didn’t measure up to Pulitzer standards? Were they passing judgment on the three authors in question? Or were they sending a message about the value of fiction in general?
Implicitly, of course, they were devaluing fiction. Knowing awards would be given in all the other categories, they were saying, No novels or short story collections were strong enough to pole vault over the bar we’ve arbitrarily set. Send better work next time. Contemporary fiction writers already have a hard time shouldering their way past the diet cookbooks and celebri-moirs cluttering bookstores in order to earn a modicum of respect among readers. Telling the world there was no prize-worthy fiction published in 2011 sends a bad message to a population already biased against reading lies for pleasure.
As a novelist, I’m sure I sound like I’m talking with my mouth full of sour grapes and, yes, I’m unfairly second-guessing the Pulitzer board. Who knows why they chose this curious path—one for which they knew they’d get flak. Maybe the reasons go deeper than my narrow-scoped blogger vision can see. But still, from where I sit, it’s troubling and disappointing.
Okay, so maybe Swamplandia! was no To Kill a Mockingbird, or Train Dreams no The Way West, or The Pale King no Humboldt’s Gift. But is that any reason to put fiction in the corner of the classroom with a dunce cap? Why should fiction writers be the red-headed bastards of the publishing world this year? Those words “No Award” sound a lot to me like “No Respect.”
UPDATE: Corrected to clarify the voting procedure. Originally, I had it backward and said the three-member jury cast the final vote, rather than the 18-member board. My apologies for the confusion and my wrong-headed criticism of Ms. Corrigan, Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Larson.
UPDATE, Part Deux: The Daily Beast has more on how the board reached its non-decision. Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, admits there was "a problem."