Benjamin Hale and the ongoing hand-wringing over the failure to award the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2012

I’d set this particular topic down weeks ago, but a blog I read steered me to this essay about the Pulitzer Prize by Benjamin Hale, a novelist (who was eligible this year, but he swears that isn’t influencing him at all—Ann Patchett swore the same thing in her diatribe written several weeks ago….no offense to either writer, but I think in both cases the writer doth protest too much).  I would have let him go by uncommented, but A) he takes a shot at Laughing Boy, the winner in 1930, B) he takes a broad shot at all the early winners, and C) he takes a shot at the very notion that anyone would dare consider themselves fit to award a prize for true art.  I think Hale makes a few very reasonable observations, but I think he misses the boat in a few other ways, and hey, this is the Internet, and we both get to have our say.  He talks to an audience of tens of thousands, and I talk to you, my friends, fellow lit-bloggers, and spammers (how’s that American Airways scam coming, by the way? you guys really seem to be pushing it hard this week).  But I’ll take you all over his New York literati friends, who seem to be a relatively nice lot, I guess, but they seem awfully self-congratulatory as well (or that’s how his piece came off when I read it).

Anyway, here’s my responses, in order.  Laughing Boy, I will grant you, is not a work of lasting cultural impact like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, although I kind of doubt Mr. Hale has read it.  If he had, he’d know that, unlike Hemingway, Oliver La Farge was doing something really extraordinary in 1930—he was a white American man writing a thoughtful and serious portrayal of minority characters, in which white Americans figure as bit players (and mostly cast in the role of villains—or at the very least are negatively portrayed).  In fact, I am hard-pressed to name any other young white male author doing anything so culturally smart and open-minded in that era—if there are others, I’d like to know about them.  No, La Farge is not Hemingway or Faulkner.  But to single his one book out as the Pulitzer’s most scorn-worthy decision is really cheap, and frankly I think shows that Hale is unfamiliar with the work, which doesn’t really inspire confidence.  I could certainly give him Pulitzers to rant about, if he wants them.

Regarding his shot at the early Pulitzer winners, I think that he seems awfully smug about the “forgotten” early novels, given that he then spends much of the rest of his piece noting that artists are not always appreciated in their own time—in particular, he wishes that he could encourage the unappreciated-in-his-time Herman Melville.  I agree with him on Melville, but here’s my question for Hale: how do you know that these novels have been justly forgotten?  Isn’t it possible that many of them have been as wrongly neglected today as Melville was wrongly neglected in his lifetime?  Why should we assume that our tastes now are better than their tastes were then?  I know from experience the worth of tackling another age’s literature and trying to understand it.  Sure, it’s sometimes deeply disappointing—I think we are better at seeing and appreciating some things now (like the validity of minority viewpoints and experiences)—but at other times I have been truly and wonderfully surprised.  I somehow suspect I’ve read far more of the Pulitzer’s first 20 years than Mr. Hale has—I can’t match his credentials as a writer, but I’d thank him not to talk too loudly about novels whose worth he’s been content to judge purely by their current popularity among the  academics with whom he discusses books.  Perhaps in another decade, or century, Josephine W. Johnson will be received into the canon as an important American voice, and T. S. Stribling will be acknowledged as having been as perceptive about the South he tried to chronicle as the vaunted William Faulkner was about his South.  I’ll admit it seems far-fetched.  But then, many authors have languished for centuries in obscurity before being returned to the light by the right critic champion.  Anyway, the basic problem I have is that his own argument undercuts his dismissive attitude about the early Pulitzer winners.

Lastly….man, am I reluctant to come out swinging in defense of literary awards.  I didn’t choose the Pulitzers for this blog’s mission because I’ve always been such a big fan.  I don’t hang breathlessly on the National Book Award nominations, and I’ll confess that I probably couldn’t name five Man Booker winners if you held a gun to my head.  But Hale’s lengthy ramble hits all sorts of odd points—attacking the idea of twenty journalists handing out the Pulitzer Prize, attacking groupthink on awards committees in general, side-swiping the Grammys for never giving awards to punk bands, etc., etc.—and really got under my skin after a while.  Firstly, Mr. Hale, on behalf of book lovers and librarians everywhere, I would ask you to cut out the professionalization of literary opinion that has been disastrous for a couple of American generations of readers.  An MFA getting in high dudgeon because twenty journalists—I mean, can you believe it, journalists???—are issuing a prize for a novel (how dare they have an opinion?) is all of the things I hate most about literary snobbery.  Do you really think only MFAs and novelists should be allowed to hand out awards for novels?  That journalists should be denounced as “a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature” suggests to me that Hale doesn’t think ordinary readers get to have their opinion, or else that their opinions are of no worth.  And I personally think that stinks.  The Pulitzers have never pretended to be anything but what they are—the journalists are all identified and the prize has always been awarded by them.  Hale doesn’t even know the prize’s terms—he’s angry that they’re choosing “the best”, when the Pulitzer is almost alone among literary prizes in that its criterion doesn’t include the word “best”.  It’s simply recognizing “distinguished fiction”.  It’s journalists selecting (with the advice of a group of literary-minded jurors) a novel that they think merits attention, and prize money.  Sure, there’s a “best” implied in the act, I suppose, in that they choose only one, but I admire the award’s humility in not claiming the word “best”.  If Hale thinks awards shouldn’t be given by “a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature”, he’s welcome not to pay attention to their efforts, or to organize a group of top novelists who would issue their own award.  But to shout negatively about it is just going to continue the lousy atmosphere that’s crept up around “serious fiction” in the United States—the notion that it’s difficult, that it’s only for people with postgraduate degrees who donate money to NPR, that the common person can’t be supposed to understand it or have a well-informed opinion about it, etc.  The fact that he dwells on who’s giving the award, and their lack of qualifications (as compared with him and his literary friends) really sours me on his commentary.

Photo of Herman Melville

“Perhaps the hypos are getting the best of Mr. Hale. I suggest he sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And why is it journalists giving this award, Mr. Hale?  Because Joseph Pulitzer, that covetous old sinner, left money for prizes of all sorts, and in addition to encouraging other endeavors in the art of writing, he wanted there to be a prize for the novel.  Who does it hurt, Mr. Hale, that someone wins the prize?  No one that I can think of, off-hand.  But I know who it helps.  You see, while Hale is dancing around lamenting the fate of the poor, forgotten, neglected, penniless Herman Melville (who was all of those things, and whose fate was lamentable—I’m not disagreeing with him on the merits of that case), he’s forgetting that the Pulitzer is in part a way out for people just like Melville.  Thornton Wilder was an unknown boarding school teacher in 1928, with one failed novel to his name, when his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, won the Pulitzer Prize.  It drew attention to what turned out to be a remarkable little novel, and changed Wilder’s life—he left the prep school to teach at the University of Chicago, and went on to write many notable plays and novels, including the unforgettable Our Town.  Had it not been for the Pulitzer, it’s hard to know what Wilder’s life would have looked like…maybe a lot more like Herman Melville’s?  The point is that if Old Joe Pulitzer felt like leaving a little money and fame, to be handed out once a year to a reasonably accomplished American novelist, I can’t work out why Hale thinks it’s a bad idea.  Does he think the literary world overhypes the Pulitzer?  Okay, then encourage them to pay attention to other awards—or suggest that people read more broadly, or whatever you like.  But don’t pretend that what you’re doing in this essay is more noble than what Joseph Pulitzer’s endowment is doing.  Every year (well, er, except for 2012, and the other occasional years when the award isn’t given), a novelist’s career is impacted for the better by this prize.  Sometimes it’s a famous name, but when it’s not, it’s the sort of thing that changes their life.  If Hale doesn’t want artists dying in obscurity like Melville, I think he should want more prizes and awards, more outpourings of love for writers, not less.

I know I got a bit worked up over this, but Hale’s commentary was a train wreck [upon consideration, I think I was a bit over the line with “train wreck”, since I did think Hale made some useful comments—I’d replace the phrase with something more like “Hale’s commentary was weighed down too much by the things that bother me…”] of the things that bother me most, especially that portion of his rant that seemed to exclude anybody who didn’t have his credentials from having a worthwhile opinion about literature.  I think novelists, and the professionals in the field of writing and reading more generally, should be praising the idea that you don’t have to be a writer to like good writing, and the idea that there can be all sorts of legitimate and worthwhile responses to a novel.  Don’t box people into having to think “the right thing” about the “right writers”—if they hate Faulkner, or Melville, we should be encouraging them to say why they feel that way.  And we should let that conversation (intense though it may be) spur all of the people involved into being more thoughtful, more purposeful, more excited readers.  Hale loses track of that in his piece, and it’s a shame.  All right, enough of my playing Don Quixote on behalf of the Pulitzers—back to reading, and hopefully blogging in the near future.