One-Minute Book Reviews

April 18, 2012

In Defense of the Pulitzer Board’s Decision to Give No 2012 Fiction Prize

Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda 

The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call

By Janice Harayda

My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.

So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.

But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.

The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that  she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.

Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?

Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).

Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

4 Comments »

  1. “Awards are made by majority vote, but the board is also empowered to vote ‘no award,’ or by three-fourths vote to select an entry that has not been nominated or to switch nominations among the categories. If the board is dissatisfied with the nominations of any jury, it can ask the Administrator to consult with the chair by telephone to ascertain if there are other worthy entries.” Seems like the Board could have looked for winners beyond the three finalists.

    Comment by Simon Evnine — April 24, 2012 @ 2:43 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks, Simon. That’s a useful quote for people who are following the 2012 fiction Pulitzer flap.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 24, 2012 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

  3. i was actually curious about what you thought about my comments–both about: ann patchett’s comment that we hadn’t ever had a “year more in need” of the pulitzer being a reference primarily to the rough year the publishing (and therefore the book-retail) industry had faced; and that i personally didn’t understand why the length of “train dreams” seemed to disqualify it in your opinion (an opinion that many seem to hold, mind you)….i’m not sure why you felt the need to simply delete my comments instead of responding to them, but i am curious what your response actually is?

    Comment by bippityboppityboom — July 2, 2012 @ 11:31 pm | Reply

  4. [...] for the Page-Turner blog for the New Yorker, Cunningham doesn’t mention a conflict of interest: As I noted in April, Johnson helped to launch Cunningham’s career by providing a blurb for his first book and did him [...]

    Pingback by Backscratching in Our Time: Denis Johnson and Michael Cunningham « One-Minute Book Reviews — July 10, 2012 @ 10:54 pm | Reply


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