Michael Cunningham, the novelist who was one of three jurors for this year's Pulitzer Prize in fiction, posts at The New Yorker that he and his fellow jurors were completely taken aback by the Pulitzer board's refusal back in April to award a best book this year. The jurors read more than 300 novels and short stories and submitted three finalists that they really liked, then waited expectantly to find out which won.
The jury's picks were David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” and Karen Russell's first novel, “Swamplandia!” The other jurors were Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for “Fresh Air” and a professor of English at Georgetown University, and Susan Larson, the former book editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and host of “The Reading Life” on NPR. Pulitzer board deliberations are officially sealed, so until someone talks the full story won't be known.
Cunningham lays out how the jury made its recommendations in his blog post today, which is billed as the first of two parts, the second to be published tomorrow.
We were, all three of us, shocked by the board’s decision (non-decision), because we were, in fact, thrilled, not only by the books we’d nominated but also by several other books that came within millimeteres of the final cut. We never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a prize onto. We agreed, by the end of all our reading and discussion, that contemporary American fiction is diverse, inventive, ambitious, and (maybe most important) still a lively, and therefore living, art form.....
When we first spoke (we all live in different cities, and met in person only once), in June of 2011, Maureen, Susan, and I made a few fundamental agreements that had, surely, been made by other juries in the past. We would not favor writers for their obscurity (who doesn’t love an undiscovered genius?), or penalize them for their exalted reputations. We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature. We preferred visionary explorers to modest gardeners, and declared ourselves willing to forgive certain shortcomings or overreachings in a writer who was clearly attempting to accomplish more than can technically be done using only ink and paper.
Soon after, the books started to arrive....
When we’d agreed on our three choices, Susan, Maureen, and I drank two consecutive toasts over the phone. First to the finalists, and then to the valiant, gifted almost-finalists. We were truly sorry about some of the books we’d rejected. We were enormously pleased with the artfulness and fearlessness and unorthodox beauties of the books we’d decided to nominate.
And so, we submitted our choices to the members of the board and waited, with gleeful anticipation, for their announcement on April 16th.
Previously on LA Observed:
No Pulitzer awarded in fiction