No prize for the Pulitzer board

This year when the Pulitzer Prize winners were posted at work one sentence stood out from the rest. “No winner announced for fiction this year.”

Was fiction not outstanding this year? I’m sure that sometimes it’s difficult to pick a winner from a selection of books you aren’t impressed with, but doesn’t there have to be a winner? Can’t they just pick the best of the nominees? Also, who are “they”?

I was a little confused, mostly because I really have no idea how the Pulitzer Prize committee works. Each year the winners were announced and we put the fiction winner on display at the register. Then it’s over.

My first year working at the bookstore the fiction winner was Tinkers by Paul Harding. I had picked up the book a few months earlier in the new releases section of the library. The opening was moving and beautifully written. It isn’t a long book and I finished it that weekend. Learning that it later became a Pulitzer Prize winner was a nice boost to my book-choosing ego. Look at me go, I know a winner when I see one.

Looking at the list of past winners I saw a lot of books I recognized and a few I’ve read — Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (winner 2000), Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (winner 2003), and The Road by Cormac McCarthy (winner 2007). I’d have to say The Road is my favorite. I had to put it down a few times and remind myself that I wasn’t cold and starving and fighting for my life. Then I usually made a sandwich, grabbed a blanket, and picked up where I left off.

Looking at the list of winners, and two runners up for each year, made me feel woefully under-read. It happens every time I see a list of “good” books. Part of me wants to read these books and improve myself while another (stronger) part of me rebels and reads Sophie Kinsella books for a week straight.

But this year there is no winner. The list of runners-up contains three books: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. I’d have to say The Pale King is the one I’ve wanted to read the most. I’d heard great things about Swamplandia! and nothing (sorry) about Train Dreams.

My reaction to the news matched the reaction of the coworkers I spoke with: If no winner is picked it means no one is good enough. Then one coworker learned Swanpalndia! was a nominee and was shocked. He had loved the book and if it wasn’t good enough then what was? How did this process work anyway?

Well, this year a three-person fiction jury read 314 books and sent their three nominees to the Pulitzer Prize Board. That 20-person board then chooses the winner over a span of two days. Because they choose winners from nominees in 21 categories, I really wonder if they read everything. I would be hard-pressed to read three novels in two days and decide which is best. Couple that with choosing a winner for History, Drama, Biography, General Nonfiction, Music, Poetry, and 14 journalism categories and I’m out.

No matter how much the board actually knows about the nominees, I know a winner has to be chosen by a majority vote. I like to think that each member felt so strongly about the novel they liked that none of them were willing to compromise and let another book win. That I would understand. I know how to be stubborn and dig in my heels. Although this is the first time in 35 years that no fiction prize has been awarded, it has happened ten other times.

What does it mean to not award this prize, which normally has a bigger impact than any other prize on American sales? I feel like no matter what you say about the process or how the books were “unorthodox” as some have said, this makes the fiction of 2011 look weak. People depend on the Pulitzer to determine the best. Whether that is a good thing or not is moot. If it’s your job to pick a winner then you pick a winner.

I don’t think The Pale King should win just because David Foster Wallace had a beautiful career. If people want to give him a lifetime achievement award I’m fully behind it, but that’s not what the Pulitzer is. Was the board afraid that’s what the public would think if it gave an unfinished novel the prize? Wallace’s editor pieced together the ending from manuscripts and some people have said it shows in the flow of the writing. I’m glad it was published but it’s okay if it’s not a winner on its own merits. It’s okay, too, if it is.

The New York Times cited Karen Russell’s young age, 29 when Swamplandia! was first published, as her “unorthodox” qualification. It’s also her first book, neither of which should be held against her. Tinkers was Paul Harding’s first book and while I hate them both for publishing at a young age, the books are good. Isn’t it more impressive to do so well your first time and at such a young age?

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson was originally a novella, first published in the Paris Review and then years later published as a hardcover. I know it’s less traditional than the 300 to 800 page books we see a lot of, but it’s a good thing when an author knows where to end a story.

Fiction is changing. Collections of short stories and long, full-length novels aren’t necessarily going anywhere, but they are sharing the shelves with lyric stories and books that use images as much as they use words. This is good. In an age of ebooks and Amazon, when fiction is at everyone’s fingertips it’s time to change the game a little. Show people something new and clever, something bold that doesn’t fit into preconceived notions of story.  Shock them and get them talking and reading even more.

And if it’s your job to say what’s the best, do it. If all three nominees are unconventional, doesn’t that say something about the changing face of fiction writing? Maybe it says something about the stodginess of the panel too. Hopefully next year something will change. I hope it’s the Pulitzer Prize Board because I like where fiction is headed.

Kelly Hannon works in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

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