The Pulitzer Prizes board could not agree on a single "distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life," and did not award any book the $10,000 prize in Monday's announcement. The finalists put forth by the jury were all fine works: "Train Dreams," by Denis Johnson; "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell; and "The Pale King," by the late David Foster Wallace. It's not necessarily that the books weren't deemed worthy. It's a voting process and no book could win the required number of votes on the Pulitzer board.
Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said in the New York Times that he was "shellshocked” by the lack of a winner. “It’s a missed opportunity,” he said. “Awards are very important to focus attention on books. So when one isn’t given, it’s a missed boat, and I’m sad about that." Farrar, Straus and Giroux published "Train Dreams."
"Wow, Pulitzer committee. That’s cold," wrote Stephen Lee at Entertainment Weekly.
To be fair to the Board, the jurors may have made the decision more difficult than it should have been. Johnson’s "Train Dreams" is a novella that was re-issued from 2002, and the board may have felt as though it was something they’d seen before. The posthumously published, incomplete "The Pale King" wasn’t the late Wallace’s best work. But why not give the award to Russell? "Swamplandia!" isn’t the typical Pulitzer winner, but it’s an intelligent, inventive, and thoroughly entertaining read. In a time when people aren’t buying books — especially literary adult novels — it seems counterproductive and insulting not to hand out a Pulitzer Prize, which translates into sales. Last year’s winner, Jennifer Egan’s "A Visit from the Goon Squad," got a huge boost in paperback after the announcement.
Getting a mass audience to buy a challenging literary novel is an uphill battle, and there better be a good reason for depriving the reading public of a quality recommendation. My mother, whose first language is not English, would always buy and spend a painstakingly long time to read and understand the Pulitzer-winning novel each year. For her and a lot of other readers, the Pulitzer Prize is the ultimate, authoritative stamp of approval, and it got her to read books she wouldn’t normally read — and she gained a huge sense of accomplishment from finishing them.
There were plenty of worthy books in 2011: "The Submission" by Amy Waldman, "Stone Arabia" by Dana Spiotta, and "The Tiger’s Wife" by Téa Obreht come to mind.
Laura Miller wonders at Salon whether the Pulitzer snub means the board thought "that no good fiction was published in America last year? I would (and have) argued otherwise, most strenuously; 2011 was an exceptional year for fiction, American and otherwise."
The Pulitzer Prize may wield far more clout with book buyers than any other American prize for fiction. It can turn an obscure title into a success and a modestly successful title into a bestseller. Readers take it seriously and snap up the books it honors by the thousands. But that doesn’t mean that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction doesn’t suffer from the same problems that afflict every literary prize, no matter its size or influence.
I have some insight into those problems because I served on the Pulitzer fiction jury two years ago. I can’t talk about my jury’s deliberations, however — that was part of the deal. I can tell you that choosing the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is a two-tier process, a fact that even people well-versed in the literary world tend to forget.
The first tier is the jury’s selection. Three jurors (usually an academic, a critic and a fiction writer) are responsible for wading through huge boxfuls of books. Anyone can submit his or her book to the Pulitzer competition for a small fee, and believe me: anyone does. We got hundreds and hundreds of them, including many self-published novels with titles like “The Bikinis of Alpha Centauri,” most of which read as if they’d been run through Google Translate into Farsi and then run back again into English before being committed to print.
From the many submissions, the jury picks three titles to recommend to the Pulitzer Board, and the board picks the actual winner, as well as selecting the winners of all the other Pulitzer Prizes. The board does have the option to select a title not on the jury’s list, but it rarely does so nowadays.
The jury in the fiction category consisted of Susan Larson, former book editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and host of the "The Reading Life" on WWNO-FM; Maureen Corrigan, critic in residence at Georgetown University and book critic on NPR's "Fresh Air;" and Michael Cunningham, a novelist in New York.
Graphic from Salon.com