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.