Monday, April 16, 2012

Pulitzers Say No Go In Fiction

In the wake of today's announcement of this year's Pulitzer Prizes, which in the Arts and Letters categories went to:

  • Tracy K. Smith in poetry, for her collection Life on Mars;  
  • Quiara Alegría Hudes in drama for her play Water by the Spoonful;
  • John Lewis Gaddis in biography for his critical biography Geore F. Kennan: An American Life;
  • Stephen Greenblatt in general nonfiction for his critical history and analysis Swerve: How the World Became Modern;
  • Kevin Puts in music, for his opera Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts;
  • and the late Manning Marable, in history, after it was moved from biography, for Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention;

across the nets people have been noting the decision by the fiction jury, comprising Chair Susan Larson, former book editor at The Times-Picayune and, host of the show The Reading Life on WWNO-FM; Maureen Corrigan, critic in residence at Georgetown University and book critic of NPR's Fresh Air, and novelist and 1999 Pulitzer fiction recipient Michael Cunningham, not to award any of the three finalists the award this year. Who were the three finalists? Dennis Johnson, for Train Dreams (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Northwestern University alumna Karen Russell, for Swamplandia! (New York: Alfred A. Knopf); and the late David Foster Wallace, for The Pale King (New York: Little, Brown and Company).

People online have put forward various reasons why none of these novels met the grade. Johnson's supposedly was a republication of an earlier book; Wallace's was posthumously assembled and hardly his strongest work (he was ignored by the Pulitzer committee while he was alive, it should be noted); and Russell's novel, named to top 10 and 25 lists by Publisher's Weekly and NPR...I don't know what happened. The committee (or whoever puts forward the finalists) ignored all of the US finalists and the winner of this yearly cycle's National Book Critics Circle Award. Edith Pearlman (who won for Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories), Dana Spiotta (Stone Arabia), Teju Cole (whose Open City I have read and thought one of the best of the year), and Jeffrey Eugenides (The Marriage Plot), a prior Pulitzer winner in 2002 for his novel Middlesex, were passed over. So too did the Pulitzer committee ignore all of this yearly cycle's National Book Award winners and finalists, who included winner Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones), Pearlman, Andrew Krivak (The Sojourn), Téa Obreht (whose The Tiger's Wife has received rapturous praise) and Julie Otsuka (The Buddha in the Attic), who did receive this year's PEN Faulkner Award for this book.

(I should note that women of color have received more awards this literary award cycle, among them last year's National Book Awards for Fiction and Poetry, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and this year's Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and Drama, perhaps than ever before, a very good sign, not that you'd know this from the lack of attention these authors still generally receive.)

And I could list a raft of works of fiction, novels, short stories, novellas, published since last year's Pulitzer, that should have been seriously considered. So what gives? I don't know, but I also don't know why such an eccentric list emerged in the first place. If anything, given the alleged knock against Johnson's text (and he has received many of the highest literary honors, including the National Book Award for his 2007 novel Tree of Smoke) and the desire, perhaps, not to throw Wallace a posthumous honor, why not just give the prize to Russell, if she made the final trio?  This is, as others who've perused the net are quite aware, not the first time the Pulitzer jury, or the board overseeing the awards, has decided not to name a winner. In 1977 the fiction jury recommended prize go to Norman MacLean for A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (which Robert Redford in 1992 transformed into a beautiful but glacially slow film), but the Pulitzer board, which has sole discretion for awarding the prize, supposedly did not give it. In1974, the fiction jury unanimously recommended the prize go to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, but the Pulitzer board apparently said nyet. And in 1971, none of the three novels, The three novels the Pulitzer committee put forth for consideration to the Pulitzer board, Eudora Welty's Losing Battles; Saul Bellow's seethingly racist Mr. Sammler's Planet; and Joyce Carol Oates's The Wheel of Love, were all rejected, thus no award. Bellow received the award in 1976 for Humboldt's Gift, a lesser but less offensive novel, while Welty received it in 1973 for The Optimist's Daughter, when any collection of her short stories more obviously merited the honor. Oates has never received the prize, nor has MacLean or Pynchon.

Usually, it seems, there are politics operating behind the scenes, so who knows. Had the Pulitzer Board--which includes many luminaries quite familiar with literature, including classicist, philosopher and political scientist Danielle Allen (of the Institute for Advanced Studies); Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz (also a professor at MIT); author and Columbia J school dean Nicolas Lemann; and University of Pennsylvania historian of the US South and African American history Paul Hahn--felt that none of the selections were adequate, I wish they'd just have picked a book themselves--by Justin Torres (We the Animals), say, or Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), or Amy Waldman (The Submission) or Kevin Brockmeier (The Illuminations), or Ann Patchett (State of Wonder), or P. Zamora Lindmark (Leche), or Donald Ray Pollack (The Devil All the Time), or any of the other writers listed above.

Of course some may say who cares? Yes, there have been criticisms that Pulitzer, particularly in the fiction category, usually honors a writer not for her or his best work but sometimes as a form of redress for having missed out on the best work (cf. Faulkner, Hemingway, Bellow, etc.). But recent Pulitzers in fiction have defied this. Is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao not Junot Díaz's masterpiece thus far? Was Middlesex not Jeffrey Eugenides's finest novel? Was The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri's first book, not perfectly realized? So that canard ought to be tossed out the window, at least as of recent winners (and nominees). But more importantly, the Pulitzer name, for the winners and finalists, does help draw recognition to literary fiction, and also helps sales, and there are few serious writers living in the US today--not a single person listed above, including the most successful ones--who could not benefit from a sales boost. Let's hope they find three finalists and a sure winner next year.

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