Monday, April 16, 2012

The Year Without Fiction

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."


  1. Maybe I am wrong, but I think you misunderstood how the prizes are given. A five-member jury selects 3 finalists from the nominees, and then the Pulitzer Board votes on those 3 finalists, and if there is a certain majority, that book wins that prize. This year, there was no clear majority for Fiction, so no award.

  2. Julie,
    I do understand there's a jury process before going to the final three judges, but even if the judges each ended up voting for a separate title (i.e. a three-way tie), as I'm sure is sometimes the case, don't they still deliberate over the end result? According to the Pulitzer's website, the "no award" decision is a conscious, deliberate one. If this is not the case, then I humbly stand corrected.

  3. Well, I'm wrong about part of it, at least. There are only 3 members of the jury (for fiction, anyway). But I still think they select the 3 finalists (though they may make it obvious which one they suggest should win) and the board votes on them.

  4. Well, my 2nd post hasn't shown up yet, but I think the "jury" IS the final three judges, and they take all the nominations and select three finalists. They probably make a case for each one, and they might even single one out as the one they think should win, but they don't decide the final winner. The Pulitzer Board votes on the three finalists and must have a majority to win. Supposedly, there wasn't a majority, so nobody won.

    I dunno. Every newspaper and blog says something different. Wikipedia says what I first said, but that's not completely accurate either. All I know is that someone should have won!!

  5. There was also no award given in editorial writing. I think you're taking it too personally.

  6. Julie,
    Though the rules are still somewhat murky and muddled, I do believe you are right. The jury of three makes the recommendation and the 18-member board makes the final decision. Thanks for calling this error to my attention. I've corrected it in the post.
    Now, if only the Pulitzer board could correct *their* error!

  7. Don't know if this is true for fiction, but I know in the journalism categories there is wide latitude for the board to arrive at its decision -- including dropping finalists and elevating work that was not put forward as a finalist. Now that would have been something!

    In any case, as it has happened now seven times dating to 1948, I'm inclined to file under "oddity" rather than "fodder for outrage." If there is also no winner in 2013, I shall reassess.

  8. Is three always the magic number for the short list? Although I haven't read any if these three books in full (I read a chunk of The Pale King in the New Yorker), I can imagine the judges just not being enthusiastic about these particular choices.

  9. Craig and Sue,
    You're right--perhaps the Pulitzer board was not enthusiastic about the three final choices, but according to the prize rules they *did* have the option of selecting a different work to be awarded. The fact that they purposefully decided to leave the category blank--for whatever reason--still rankles at me.
    And, sure, I'm probably being overly sensitive and maybe it's a molehill which shouldn't turn into a mountain. But I still feel like fiction was collectively shunned this year.

  10. I'm not sure that "purposely" decided is accurate, David. In every contest/award, judges reserve the right not to give an award if they do not feel a particular entry stands head and shoulders above the rest. We can't say, "Gee, this one isn't great, but it's not as bad as the others, so it gets the award." I think, as writers, we should all WANT to be held to the highest standards.