Pulitzer’s no decision on fiction prize exposes flaw in process


HANDOUT IMAGE: Georgetown professor of English Maureen Corrigan served as one of the judges for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. (Phil Humnicky/Georgetown Univ.)
April 18, 2012

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard that the Pulitzer Prize board declined to award a prize in fiction this year. I was one of three jurors — along with the former books editor for the Times-Picayune, Susan Larson, and novelist Michael Cunningham, who himself won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for “The Hours.”

Like everyone else, we three jurors found out Monday that there would be no 2012 prize in fiction. That terrible news capped what was otherwise the greatest honor of my career as a book critic and professor of literature. As Susan, the chair of our jury, has put it, for a golden space, she, Michael and I were privileged to enjoy membership in what must surely be one of the most intense book clubs imaginable. Over six exhilarating and, sometimes, anxious months, we read through some 300 novels and short-story collections. We argued and enthused about books regularly, via e-mails, conference calls and one face-to-face meeting. By late November, we had to reach some decisions. In the end, we nominated David Foster Wallace’s “ The Pale King ,” Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” and Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!

I’m angry on behalf of those novels.

We’ll never know why the Pulitzer board declined to award the prize this year, because, as is the board members’ right, they’ve drawn their Wizard of Oz curtain closed tight. We jurors have heard only the same explanation that everyone else has heard: The board could not reach a majority vote on any of the novels. I’d like to think that “The Pale King,” “Train Dreams” and “Swamplandia!” each garnered such fierce partisans on the board that no compromise could be reached. Right. Whenever I succumb to that fantasy, the words written by the winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in fiction ring in my head: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Hemingway did not win for “The Sun Also Rises,” the novel that ends with those immortal words but, rather, for “The Old Man and The Sea,” which is rather short, about 90 pages. One of the charges the literary couch quarterbacks have made against Johnson’s novel is that it is too short, in fact, novella length. But why should that matter? “The Great Gatsby,” arguably our greatest American novel, is short, too, and short-story collections are eligible for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Critics also have complained that since “Train Dreams” was first published in 2002 in the Paris Review, the book version is somehow redundant. (I know you all must have read it there first. Current circulation figures of the print edition of the Paris Review? 16,000.)

Some second-guessers have also shrugged off our nomination of “Swamplandia!” for being a debut novel by a then-29-year-old author, as though literary excellence has, like the presidency, a constitutional age requirement. Harper Lee was a mere five years older than Russell when she finished “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won the Pulitzer in 1961. Philip Roth was all of 26 when he published his short-story collection “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959 and, the following year, it won the National Book Award.

And, some tongues have wagged over our nomination of Wallace’s posthumously published novel, “The Pale King,” which was unfinished at his death in 2008 and pieced together by his editor, Michael Pietsch, from drafts and notes. By that logic, the canon should expel such fragments as Kafka’s “The Trial,” Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” Byron’s “Don Juan,” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Maybe even “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which won the Pulitzer in 1981, should be reexamined since it might well have taken a different shape had its author, John Kennedy Toole, not died before it was finally published. Like these other works, “The Pale King” stands or falls, not on its back story, but on its coherence as a literary construction. Some readers saw merely a pile of notes; we read it to be, instead, a masterful novel of American workplace ennui, with strikingly original language on almost every page.

We three members of the Pulitzer jury were not charged with selecting the lengthiest, or the hoariest, or the most polished works of American fiction. We were not told to stick to the middlebrow, nor did we egg each other on to aim for the edgy. Our directive was to nominate “distinguished” works of fiction, published in book form in 2011 that, ideally, spoke to American themes. And 2011 saw a bounty of good novels. We unanimously agreed on our three nominees. In our collective judgment, these very different novels are three very distinguished works of fiction.

“The Pale King” captivated us, even in its unfinished state. “Swamplandia!” is animated by high-flying story-telling ambition and Mark Twain-like humor. (Catch that exclamation point!) “Train Dreams” starkly summons up the lives of humble bit players in the saga of the American West and reads like myth.

All three novels are unforgettable, and if you read them all — which would be the best outcome of this Pulitzer debacle — I promise that your sense of the possibilities of American fiction will be enlarged.

In the past few days, I’ve been contacted by journalists from U.S., Canadian, Brazilian and Danish media outlets. My fellow jurors have also spoken to journalists near and far. Everybody wants to know if there’s “a crisis in American letters.” No, no crisis there, but rather a flaw in the process by which the Pulitzer Prize is decided.

Here are some suggestions for change, all my own: One solution— the obvious one — would be to let the jury who reads through the 300-odd works of fiction make the final decision as to the winner. We were invited to serve on the jury because we’re recognized as being, in some way, literary experts. Why, then, turn the final decision over to a board primarily composed of non-literary folk?

If that sounds too elitist, here’s another suggestion: If the board, which received our three nominations in early December, is unhappy with the jury’s choices, then why not request that the jury put forward alternative selections?

And, finally, how about changing the rules so that the winner is determined by a plurality, rather than a majority of votes on the board. (And — Hello! — given that there are 18 voting members of the Pulitzer board, perhaps one more body should be added to break any potential ties.)

The Pulitzer is too prestigious and crucial an award to book lovers, authors and the publishing industry to be sporadically — and unaccountably — withheld.

Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air” and a regular reviewer for Book World.

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