For the first time since 1977, the Pulitzer Prize committee chose not to give an award for fiction this year.
The responses have been vociferous and bifurcated (those are high literary terms for loud and split). It’s been denounced alternately as a flaw in literature itself, or in the committees doing the nominating and selecting, respectively.
The nominating committee–Michael Cunningham, a past winner for his novel The Hours, NPR host Maureen Corrigan and New Orleans Times-Picayun book editor Susan Larson–were, by all accounts, a reasonable group. You had a writer, someone who talks to a lot of writers, and someone who professionally reads and evaluates a lot of books. Together, according to this story, they read over 300 books in nine months. The three books they submitted were Swamplandia by Karen Russel, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Theoretically, the Pulitzer award committee would real all three, then pick a winner.
And that’s where it gets kind of squirrelly.
Of these three books, only Swamplandia was a real, honest-to-God finished and current piece of writing. Train Dreams is a novella first published in 2002, which common sense says should disqualify it for an award ten years later (although the Pulitzer rules are pretty vague on who and what is eligible). And The Pale King (a novel about boredom, if you can believe it) was left unfinished at the time of Wallace’s 2010 suicide and subsequently completed by an editor, which means it’s not even all his work.
I haven’t read Swamplandia, but it certainly sounds like the kind of book that wins awards. The Pulitzer website calls it, “An adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years.” Its author, Karen Russell, has already won a boatload of other awards for her fiction. So what happened?
We may never know. The Pulitzer folks are under no obligation to explain their reasoning, and can give (or not) their awards to whomever they want. But despite their denials it’s tempting to read into it a comment, if not an outright indictment, of the overall state of “literature.” There has always been a dichotomy between the books that sell and the books that critics love, but it’s rarely been a wider gulf than it is right now, thanks to changes in the book industry itself. Seldom has a more repulsive “writer” also been a bestseller than the likes of Jersey Shore’s Snooki, for example.
And really, Pulitzerati, you expect us to believe that an unfinished novel about boredom is better than every other book released in 2011, except two? Those sorts of critical blinders don’t help your case.
I have no answer or explanation for this. I’m happy to consider it an observation about the so-called “literary” genre that has abandoned such basics as good storytelling, some sort of moral perspective and even the basics of grammar (you’ll never find as many sentence fragments in a genre book as you do in some “literary” works). But ultimately it may tell us nothing, except how out of touch elite awards organizations can be. And that’s not news at all.