Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: Null Value Returned

At this point in the year, post-Tournament of Books and pre-Orange Prize, book award season starts to feel like something of a slog. You start to wonder what, again, is the point of voting on a handful of books in order to declare one the best and slap a sticker on its cover. Fortunately, the Pulitzer committee has opened the matter up for discussion again, if a bit indirectly.

When the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced yesterday the Fiction category returned, as they say, a null value. The Pulitzer site’s page read simply “No award” and that was that; for the first time since 1977, the board decided that no novel published in the United States last year would receive the $10,000 prize. Although it’s tempting to say that this is some kind of commentary on contemporary American fiction or big publishing, which is already about as beleaguered as it’s ever been, apparently the award process can be fraught and result easily enough in a deadlock. This year’s panel of three jurors—NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, novelist (and Pulitzer winner) Michael Cunningham, and former Times-Picayune book editor Susan Larson—nominated three books, which were then voted on by a board of 20 journalists and academics. And the lack of a prizewinner doesn’t necessarily mean that none of the nominees measured up. As Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, clarified over at The Daily Beast,

They could have been passionate admirers of all three books … because the Pulitzer board has to vote in a majority, and so if you have 18 members, if you’ve got seven, seven, and four, that means that there’s not going to be a prize. It doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t think one of the books was worthy.

The books themselves were not without their own issues. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King was essentially an unfinished work, pieced together from notes and fragments he left before his death; Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is actually a novella; and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia is a first novel from a young author. But for all the extenuating circumstances there’s still something wrong with a book award process—especially such a prominent one—if it results in no results. As we’ve gone over plenty of times already, the point of these competitions isn’t to identify The One Best Book in a given category beyond all argument, because no such thing exists. The idea is to open up a colloquy, to bring the concept of critical book discussion out of academia and book clubs and, now, the Internet, into the public sphere. This is supposed to be civilized discourse, with a value in itself even though someone wins and someone loses.

Except, of course, when nobody wins. Which means everyone loses, essentially. Aside from the message this sends to the authors and their readers—“It’s not that another book was better, just that this one wasn’t very good”—it seems like an awful waste. The jurors read some 300 novels in the nomination process; factor in all the back-and-forth email necessary to whittle those down to three, not to mention the final board deliberations, and you’ve got a whole lot of critical energy going nowhere. And while it’s easy to point fingers at the judges, the books, or the state of American arts and letters, I’d venture that maybe the problem is with the nature of the Pulitzer Prize itself. When an institution is big enough to become a punchline or a piece of cultural shorthand, it runs the risk of taking itself way too seriously. Outside of literary circles, competitions like the Man Booker Prize or the National Book Award aren’t often taken out of context (pace Jincy Willett). At no time soon are you going to hear someone say in casual conversation, “You’d think he’s got a Tournament of Books Rooster at home on his coffee table!”

Maybe the problem with the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is just that it’s the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, that all the freight that comes along with the title has gotten in the way of the greater conversation. If you’ve made it to brand-name status, you have an obligation to contribute to the discussion. And the Pulitzer people can’t make it work somehow that’s too bad, but neither is it the end of the American novel as we know it. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

Which is not meant to take away from congratulations to the winners in other, thankfully less self-important, literary categories:

The full list of this year’s winners can be found here. Note there is also no award this year for Editorial Writing, to which I would say “see above.”

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4 Comments to Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: Null Value Returned

  1. gayla's Gravatar gayla
    April 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    The other issue with Train Dreams is that it was originally published in the Paris Review in 2003.

    I could not in good conscience have given the prize to any of the three finalists–The Pale King’s unfinished status should have disqualified it, in my opinion, as should the Johnson book’s prior publication; and Swamplandia! simply isn’t good enough. And there really hasn’t been one big important book this year that it would be easy to get a consensus on. So in that sense I feel for the board. I think the fault for this falls squarely on the three judges: they should have picked better books. But as I’ve said, it really wasn’t a good year for fiction in the U.S., so I’m not that bummed about there being no award.

    The Swerve, by the way, is awesome.

  2. Katie's Gravatar Katie
    April 17, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    As I have said elsewhere, I don’t think the mere existence of an award, no matter how well-known, necessitates actually conferring it, each and every year, I’d agree if they had just been bored with it all, and not reviewed any books at all, or cancelled the final voting meeting, or made an announcement that there had been no good writing lately. But I tend to disagree when apparently there just wasn’t a standout book – or at least not one that could get a clear majority.

    I don’t think this, or any non-award for fiction, will have a chilling effect on writers, readers, or publishing. If profits and sales are entirely dependent on receiving awards, no matter how otherwise meaningless that award might be, then things have indeed reached a sorry state.

    As for me, I am a bit tired of picking up yet another “award-winning” novel, reading it, and thinking what on EARTH????

    Yet I am really looking forward to reading The Swerve, simply because of word-of-mouth from other readers. Many of them. And I am usually to lazy to read book-length non-fiction. I prefer essays.

  3. Katie's Gravatar Katie
    April 17, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Since I made at least one grammatical error, and a couple of typos, I wouldn’t take me all that seriously. But it just seems they couldn’t or wouldn’t agree. And, if they wouldn’t – then I
    am on your side here.

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