Well, obviously it just got a whole lot more interesting for me as a lonely blogger focused on Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction—welcome to those of you arriving here searching for information about the prize and why it is/isn’t awarded. If you’re looking for basic information about what the criteria are for the prize, and who picks it, I have a page devoted to that information: it’s primarily historical (given that I am currently only up to the 1930s as I read my way through the novels), but I do link to an article from a recent jury member who has some comments on what the process looks like now. If you’re wondering how often this has happened before (the answer—more often than you might think), a quick glance at my list of the novels by year will show you the years in which “no award was given”—the last time this occurred was in 1977, when Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It didn’t quite reach the Pulitzer Board, despite being the jury’s unanimous recommendation.
As a blogger reading my way through these selections chronologically, in an attempt to better understand America and America’s literature, my feelings on the subject are mixed. The fact that the list of books ahead of me is not one longer is, I suppose, a bit of a comfort, given how long this project has taken, and will take! But that’s a fairly petty response, and not the one I’m dwelling on.
I’m at a major handicap here, since I haven’t read any of the three finalists this year, nor have I read the competition they beat out—the jury members are obviously exponentially more qualified than I am to say what was worthy this year, and how worthy it was. All I can do is comment in the abstract by saying that one of the best things about the Pulitzers, in my opinion, is their determination not to hand out the award “because someone has to win”. They are not swayed by the publishing industry’s demand for a prize-winner to drive sales. They are not moved by the appeals of literary critics or author campaigns. When they can’t settle on a winner, they don’t—this applies to all the Pulitzers, not just the prize for fiction.
That’s in the abstract. I also have to acknowledge that, in practice, the decision not to award a prize (in fiction at least) has usually not stemmed from a desire to maintain high standards, but rather from a fear of endorsing literature that is seen as too edgy, immoral, experimental, etc., for the relatively mainstream reader that the Pulitzers remain determined to serve. I don’t think that’s commendable. But I honestly can’t say what motivated the board in 2012. Is it just fear of, for example, an unfinished novel by the admittedly eccentric David Foster Wallace? Or is it really their feeling that none of the three finalists (or anything else—the Board is not required to limit itself to the jury’s nominations, though in practice they haven’t strayed recently) really merited the award. We don’t know, and we may never.
So all I can say, in the end, is that I hope it really was their feeling that none of the finalists merited the award. I can’t say if that judgment would be fair, but I don’t think it would be a bad practice if more awards followed the Pulitzers’ lead. Having the freedom not to give the award means that the award will be more significant when it is given. It will always provoke outrage. It may sometimes be the fairest possible outcome.
The other decision for me will be delayed—when I get to 2012, years from now, will I read the three finalists? I simply “skipped” 1920 when I hit the first gap in the sequence. I think I will at least comment on 1941 when I reach it, probably in the next few months. But will I read the book that was unanimously recommended (and then hastily swept under the carpet) for 1941? I don’t know. I think my decision for 1941 will govern how I handle 2012, and I’ll need to make that decision soon. Any comments/thoughts you may have on the matter, or on the larger question of whether or not it’s really a good idea for the Pulitzer Board to just skip the fiction award for 2012, would be very welcome.