The Pulitzer Awards are the book industry’s Oscars—and it was with great anticipation that I waited for the release of the list of winners. Only to be followed with an audible “WTF?” when it became clear there was no winner in the fiction category for the first time since the late 70s.
Book geek message boards began to light up with similar reactions—2011 was such a fantastic year for fiction, I thought, how could it be possible for there to be no winner?
I knew Salon.com writer Laura Miller would have something to say—and her column has offered the most insight so far. Having served as a judge, I do think her opinion carries some heft. She explains the process well, and it’s her assertion that the inability of the board to come together on a book may indicate a larger problem with the public at large—that we, for whatever reason, aren’t reading enough to make any kind of formal pronouncement on which book deserves to be labeled the best.
Chances are good that the three novels recommended by this year’s Pulitzer jury — “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell, “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, and “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace — are the only three serious new novels many of the board members read last year, apart, perhaps, from one or two others. These people are, after all, pretty busy doing things like editing the Denver Post and running the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, jobs that are a lot more time-consuming than they used to be, as well as selecting the winners in the other Pulitzer categories.
By all accounts, the group could not reach a majority on any of the three titles recommended by the jury. It’s certainly unlikely that enough of them read fiction widely enough to agree on an alternate choice. In that, they truly are representative of American readers, and that bodes worse for our national literature than a year without a Pulitzer winner.
Hmm. I agree with this to a point. I’m sure that given everything the board does professionally, outside of board deliberations, and their Pulitzer duty, is enough work to stop a team of oxen in its tracks. Still, I think it’s an incredible disservice to literature to avoid choosing a selection. The Pulitzer already suffers from its snobbish perception—only made worse when it appears as if the board can’t agree on one.single.book! to bestow the honor upon. As someone who loves to read, I shudder at the thought of thousands of casual readers not knowing there’s something better than “Twilight.”
The Pulitzer raises awareness. The Pulitzer can take a wonderful but obscure book and knock the likes of Snooki off the display table for at least a few days. For just a little while on the literary calendar, authors like Karen Russell, David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson get a little more attention than Stephanie Meyer and EL James.
And I’ll admit—I have yet to read any of the three finalists, though they are now on my short (ha!) list. Maybe that’s the positive we can take from this—that all three authors will have garnered some well-deserved attention.
Here are a few others that also received some Pulitzer “buzz” last year that I did get around to reading.
And a few more of my favorites from 2011: