The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: The 2012 “snub”

A public domain image of Joseph Pulitzer (thanks to Wikipedia)

Joseph Pulitzer, looking with disdain (or approval?) at the 2012 board’s decision not to award a prize in fiction

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.

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2 comments on “The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: The 2012 “snub”

  1. Your point that the committee could have gone beyond the jury’s list on their own changes my response some, but not completely. My understanding (not having yet read your linked article) is that the committee has to have a majority of support for the winner, so it could be that they would stall if the three selections all had strong and stubborn advocates not willing to switch allegiances. But it would also mean that it might be hard for one of the three hundred some other books that the jury considered before picking the finalists to get selected outside the jury recommendation system, since once you open the floodgates, there might be too diverse a selection of books people on the committee would support to lead to any kind of consensus either. For the last two days I’ve been inclined to blame the jury for not understanding the committee enough to get that they might be unwilling to accept a novella or an unfinished work, I admit to having had a “well, that’s one less book on my couple-thousand-books-to-read-before-I-die list” moment too, but I think I may choose to read or see the drama winner for this year instead. I live in Philly, and the author is from here originally, so that piques my interest a bit, And I read a lot more than I go to theater, so going to see a play would be a nice change of pace,

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Beth, your point about the majority is very good to raise. It may have been that there were keen partisans for all 3 books, all of whom would rather that no book win the prize than that one of the others did. Or there may have been (as I was originally supposing) a number of people voting “present” or “abstain” or whatever indicates that they’re not willing to issue the award. But you’re right that the system makes it very hard to go beyond the jury, since hitting something that a majority of the board will agree to will be very hard. It’s clear that the jury-board dynamic is a tricky one, and I wonder if you’re right about the jury’s picks not having read the board correctly…it’s hard to say! The drama idea is a good one. For a while I tried featuring the Pulitzer winner for the year I’m in for my Poetry Fridays, but I generally found that my taste differs from the Board’s far more in poetry than in prose! 🙂 It’s a good reminder, though—I should see if their poetry selections in the 1930s are any better than they were for the 1920s.

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