The Pulitzer Prize board has decided, for the first time in 35 years, not to award the prize in the fiction category.
The awarding of the prize is a two-stage process. A panel of juries nominates either its unanimous choice as a winner or a short-list of novels to the Pulitzer board. The board has the sole discretion for awarding the prize.
The 2012 panel of juries, which included the former Pulitzer winner Michael Cunningham (The Hours, 1999), nominated three novels to the board: Pale King by David Foster Wallace, Train Dreams by Denise Johnson, and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.
The official reason given for not awarding the prize this year is that the board members could not reach a unanimous verdict on any of the short-listed novels. Some may wonder whether the board decided not to award the prize because it thought none of the short-listed novels was worthy of the prize.
Maureen Corrigan, a Georgetown professor of English and one of the three jurors, was ‘angry’ on behalf of the short-listed novels (probably not as angry, one assumes, as the short-listed authors themselves; well, at least two of them, as David Foster Wallace died in 2008).
Corrigan probably had a reason to be angry, not just on behalf of the short-listed novels, but also on her own behalf. Over six ‘sometimes exhilarating sometimes anxious’ months she and the other two jurors had trawled through 300 novels and whittled them down to 3, only to learn that the Pulitzer board decided to piss on their short-list.
Sig Gissler, administrator for Pulitzer, offered an explanation. The decision of the Pulitzer board is not, Gissler explained helpfully (in case the point was lost) a statement about fiction in general. It is just a statement that none was able to receive a majority.
Thank f**k for Sig Gissler. And there I was, agitating that the American fiction was in terminal decline.
This is not the first time the Pulitzer board has pulled such a caper. In the 1970s the board did not award the prize in the fiction category in three years: 1971, 1974 and 1977. In 1974 Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was the unanimous choice of the juries, but the board members felt that the novel was amoral, and decided not to award the prize that year. (Note: the board did award the prize to Gravity’s Rainbow because it thought the novel was unreadable. This means there is hope for me, yet. Some years ago I started reading Gravity’s Rainbow and threw in the towel after twenty odd pages. When feel strong enough in future I will attempt to read this novel again.)
According to New York Times, the short-list was unusual. Train Dreams, Denise Johnson’s novella was first published in 2002 in The Paris Review (with a circulation of 16,000—1595 more than the Granta, then) before it was repackaged, while Pale King was unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace’s (untimely) death.
I am not sure what the New York Times is trying to say, here, but the word bunkum comes to mind.
After doing a modicum Internet search I discovered that controversy is not new to Pulitzer. Edith Wharton who became the first woman to win the Pulitzer, in 1921, for her novel The Age of Innocence, was not the choice of the juries. The juries were unanimous that the prize should go to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street. The novel was not acceptable to the conservative head of the Pulitzer board who, in order to make Main Street ineligible, changed the small print of the award’s wording from the prize going to the best example of ‘whole atmosphere of American life’ to ‘wholesome American life’, and awarded it to Wharton. Wharton was said to be disgusted with the behind-the scene shenanigans (but not disgusted enough to reject the award). Lewis was awarded the prize five years later for Arrowsmith. One can imagine the pleasure Lewis must have taken in composing his letter which told the Pulitzer board to f**k off. ‘All prizes, like titles, are dangerous,’ wrote Lewis in his letter of rejection (somewhat pompously, I have to say). It was all bollocks, of course. When, in 1930, Lewis became the first American novelist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he had no hesitation in accepting the award.
In his Guardian column Robert McCrum had an inexplicable lapse of memory while commenting on the 2012 Pulitzer controversy. According to McCrum, the 2012 Pulitzer short-list was very strange, which I think is a mealy-mouthed way of saying he thought it was crap. Fair enough; people are entitled to their views. McCrum then gave the 2011 Booker short-list as an example of ‘dud shortlist’ . According to McCrum, the eventual winner, Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an Ending was the only novel among the short-listed ones that was ‘remotely credible as a winner’. McCrum went on to ‘respectfully’ suggest (the quintessential British way of sugercoating insults ) that the Pulitzer should learn from ‘the people who run’ the Orange Prize’ (a sexist literary award for which only women novelists are eligible), who take ‘great deal of care’ in selecting their short-list. (Poor professor Corrigan, professor of English at Georgetown University! The poor woman spent six months of emotional roller-coaster, as she read more than 300 novels, only to be told by some t**t in the UK that she did not take enough care in selecting her short-list). McCrum then went on to suggest that this year’s Orange short-list can be used as a model. The Orange short-list, McCrum enthused, included ‘six fiction of distinction, by writers who are likely to show form over many years’. If you look at the 2012 Orange short-list, you will see that it includes a novel by the Canadian writer Esi Edugyan, entitled Half Blood Blues. This novel was also amongst the short-listed novels for the Booker Prize in 2011. So the novel that was not even relotely credible as a (potential) Booker winner in 2011 becomes a novel of distinction for the 2012 Orange Prize. Surely McCrum does not mean that Half Blood Blues was not good enough to have been even shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but is good enough to win the Orange Prize (now that is sexist). (I read Half Blood Blues last month and thought it was outstanding. It is by far the best novel I have read so far this year. I haven’t read A Sense of an Ending, yet, but I can’t believe Half Blood Blues wouldn’t have been a worthy Booker winner.)
Controversy is not new to Booker either. In 1971, one of the judges, one Malcolm Muggeridge, found himself ‘out of sympathy’ with the novels he read, and withdrew as a judge ‘nauseated and appalled.’ The winner that year was V.S. Naipaul (In A Free State). The WikiPedia entry on Muggeridge shows that he popped is clogs in 1990. Which was just as well; Muggeridge would probably have suffered a severe bout of projectile vomiting when Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. (As an aside, In A Free State is one of the most underrated Naipaul novels, despite its Booker triumph. Agreed, it is not a proper novel—it comprises a novella and two short stories. It may not be in my top five Naipaul novels, but that is because he has authored so many superlative novels; it is still a very good read. It will easily be in my top ten Booker winners.)
Back to Pulitzer 2012. The two snubbed authors (David Foster Wallace is sadly beyond all this) need not feel too downhearted. In 1971, the juries nominated a short-list of three novels, but the board decided that none of it was worthy of the Pulitzer. The nominated authors were Saul Bellow (Mr Sammler’s Planet), Joyce Carol Oates (The Wheel of Love), and Eudora Welty (Losing Battles).