In not giving an award, the Pulitzer Board damages readers
Just about the time the Pulitzer board announced on April 16 that it wasn’t anointing a fiction prize winner this year, the National Book Foundation came out with its guidelines and list of judges for the 2012 National Book Awards (NBAs). You might think publishers would be wary of forking over another entry fee (the Pulitzer processing fee is $50; the NBAs, $125), especially with all the grousing that goes on among the major trade houses when their titles are shut out by small presses, who in turn grouse that the big houses get more than their share of the nominees. But the NBAs have one major advantage over the Pulitzers: they are selected by writers, not journalists. As for the National Book Critics Circle awards, they are chosen by book critics and review editors—and there is no entry fee for submissions. (LJ‘s Barbara Hoffert is VP in charge of the awards, and LJ‘s review editors are members.)
The only “writer,” i.e., novelist, on the 20-member Pulitzer board—18 of whom are eligible to vote—is Junot Díaz. He won the fiction prize in 2008 for his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. One can only imagine his disappointment now, with no prize awarded.
Most award juries are constrained by gag orders not to discuss their decisions, but the Pulitzers have a weirdly dual nature. A jury made up of writers and critics—in this case novelist Michael Cunningham (a Pulitzer winner for The Hours), Maureen Corrigan, a book critic, and Susan Larson, a former newspaper books editor who hosts The Reading Life on New Orleans NPR affiliate WWNO—chooses the finalists. Then the board votes. Of the three novels, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was one of Hoffert’s Prepub “editor’s picks”; David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which Hoffert reviewed herself, got a star in LJ. Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams rated a star, too. “There are clear reasons from a literary standpoint why these books were picked,” says Hoffert, “but how can journalists make those choices if they’re not reading the creative literature of the day, as the judges were.”
According to Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzers, board members read all the finalists, then meet at Columbia University for two days to vote in 21 categories (there are five book categories, plus drama). “There is lengthy discussion,” says Gissler, and “often…multiple votes.” As for the fiction prize, all he could reveal was that “after extensive discussion by the board, no finalist was able to muster the mandatory majority…multiple factors were involved…. [W]e do not discuss the deliberations…. But I can assure that the board made a considered decision.” Perhaps it should have “considered” a bit longer.
The board’s process may be confidential, but the jurors who read the 300-plus submissions didn’t feel similarly restrained. Corrigan told Newsweek/The Daily Beast (“Inside the Pulitzer Fiction Snub,” 4/17/12) she felt “surprise/shock” at the board’s “inexplicable decision…. I feel angry on behalf of three great American novels.” And Cunningham said in the same article, “I think there’s something amiss in a system where three books this good are presented and there’s not a prize.”
Librarians I spoke to had the same reaction. Lisa Bitney, reading and materials director, Pierce County Library System, Tacoma, called the decision “a real disservice to these books…. It’s hard to imagine that they could be so easily discarded. I agree with Ann Patchett [“And the Winner Isn’t,” New YorkTimes, 4/17/12]: “the conclusion that comes first to mind is that the committee didn’t think any of these books were worth it. And that is a loss.”
One reason many of us like book awards is that they stir up controversy and conversation—whether you love the titles or consider them “meh,” as LJ‘s Wilda Williams said of the Pulitzer finalists. All three titles have significant holds in the handful of libraries I contacted, which translate into additional library purchases. They’re already big library book club reads, too, since the Pulitzers come out so long after the books are published. This year’s decision is no exception in generating noise about books. But it’s a shame to see Fiction: No award on the 2012 list. It harms the Pulitzers. More important, it gives no credit to the vitality, variety, and significance of fiction that is being published in this country.