“Our high respect for a well-read man is praise enough of literature.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In mid-April, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced there would be no winner for fiction. This is the eleventh time this has happened since the Board’s inception in 1917, with the last time occurring in 1977. Because of the secrecy surrounding the Board’s decision process, nobody really knows if the board was unable to reach a consensus, or if the board members decided that none of the finalists and none of the other books that were not finalists were worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.
The Pulitzer Prizes are selected in a two-tier system, in which judges review hundreds of books (this year: 341) and then recommend a selection of finalists to the board overseeing the prizes. The board then picks a winner.
The three judges in fiction this year were Susan Larson, former books editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune; Maureen Corrigan, a Georgetown University professor and a book critic on the public-radio show “Fresh Air,” and novelist Michael Cunningham, a former Pulitzer fiction winner.
The three books they had sent to the board as finalists included “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell, and “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace.
The literary community seems to share a sense of outrage over what’s happened. Some fear that no Pulitzer means no bump in sales and that no winner sends the message that no Pulitzer-worthy novels were published in 2011. Two of the judges charged with reviewing over 300 books and nominating three finalists have spoken out. Larson appeared on NPR, saying that she and the other judges were “shocked … angry … and very disappointed.”
Corrigan elaborated in the Washington Post:
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. …
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.
Because of my classes at Johns Hopkins, I spent 2011 reading books published prior to the 19th century (with a few from the 1980s/1990s) and have not read any of the great books published last year. However, it seems impossible to me that there were no books worthy of the Pulitzer, given the talented writers whose books won other prestigious awards during the same period.
It is my hope that as a result of this controversy, readers will be drawn to discover for themselves the literary fiction of 2011, so that, while the opportunity for a Pulitzer may have been missed for these authors, their novels – which they surely poured their hearts and souls into – may still be enjoyed, and readers will be moved, no longer exactly the same person they were before reading the novel.
I’ve selected the following 2011 novels for my reading list:
- Swamplandia!, a novel by 30-year-old Karen Russell
- The Art of Fielding, a debut novel by Chad Harbach
- The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published, unfinished novel
- Train Dreams by Denise Johnson
- Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
- The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
What 2011 books on are your list? Which book do you think should have been awarded the Pulitzer?
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