On April 16, the Pulitzer Prize board announced their 96th annual awards “for distinguished writing.” But this year, for the first time since 1977, no prize was awarded in fiction.
Book publishing is struggling, although we read more than ever. But our reading happens in little chunks: status updates, text messages and tweets; a three-paragraph email can elicit the dread reply “TL;DR” (too long; didn't read). With this grim economic outlook, you'd think the industry would stand together to do whatever they could to encourage book sales, but the Pulitzer board, like Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, has puzzlingly decided that they “would prefer not to.”
The cash award of $10,000 and the esteem of the Pulitzer committee are nice and all, but the real prize that publishers were hoping to reap was the sales bump that results any time a book wins a prize and hits the news cycle.
“The Pulitzer has developed a reputation for finding a balance between the critics' darlings and popular fiction,” said Bob Garfield (host of NPR's “On the Media”) in an April 20 discussion with media critic Laura Miller on this year's fiction fizzle. The Pulitzer winner tends to hit what Garfield calls “a sales sweet spot” each year - it's the book you see people reading on the bus, the beach, in their book clubs. The day after the prizes were announced, the four books that did win saw enormous leaps in sales. Overnight, the Amazon sales rank of nonfiction winner The Swerve: How the World Became Modern moved from No. 970 to No. 143; the winner in poetry, Life on Mars, jumped from No. 35,886 to No. 101.
The jurors of the literary fiction committee read more than 300 novels to narrow the field down to three finalists. The Pulitzer board, however, issued a statement saying, “The three books were fully considered, but in the end, none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded.”
Seriously? They couldn't just pick one? Such finicky adherence to the rules of order seems shortsighted at best, utterly self-defeating at worst. (Although three finalists were recommended, the board's rules require a majority, not simply a plurality, of votes to choose a winner.)
As Miller said, “We are coming out of a mid-20th-century period where every educated person felt that it was expected of them to at least have read some of the most celebrated literary novel of the year. People just don't feel that anymore.”
Shouldn't the Pulitzer foundation do all it can to make people feel that way? Its stated mission is to celebrate writing - and if publishing dies, so does the prize.
Those fiction finalists, by the way, were:
The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Speaking of TL;DR, we have the late David Foster Wallace, the Thomas Pynchon of his generation: creator of doorstops and king of the loooong form. This novel of “ideas about boredom, repetition and familiarity” is set in an IRS center in Peoria, Ill. (which would have made it an apropos pick for the Pulitzers' April 16 announcement), but perhaps they couldn't get past the fact that it was assembled posthumously by his editor from assorted notes and files. Whether you love or hate DFW's windy discursions, his talent for chronicling the skittering internal mechanics of the intelligent mind is unparalleled.
To my mind, Denis Johnson's best work is in the short form (see: his totally brilliant, near-flawless short-story collection Jesus' Son) and this is, uh, a return to form. Train Dreams is a novella that, like Jesus' Son, turns ordinary Joes into mythical representations of Americanness. Spanning the life of one Robert Grainier, born at the end of the 19th century, the 128 pages manage to capture the (literal) building of the nation. Perhaps shunned by the Pulitzer board for its brevity, or for the fact that it was originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of The Paris Review.
(Alfred A. Knopf)
Miami native Karen Russell's debut novel, set in a foundering Everglades alligator attraction, celebrates Florida in all its beauty and weirdness (especially the weirdness) with a darkly comic surreality reminiscent of George Saunders or Donald Barthelme.
Russell has been included on best writers lists including the New Yorker's “20 Under 40” and the National Book Foundation's “5 Under 35”; both her first book (the short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves) and Swamplandia! garnered universally gushing reviews. I can't imagine why this book didn't easily win - I choose not to assume that youth or gender played into the board's decision - but, in the absence of their good sense, I crown Swamplandia! the winner. Wouldn't it be a great thing if the great summer novel of 2012, the one everyone was reading, gave America a view of Florida that featured something besides corrupt, cruel politicians and woefully lax gun laws?