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No Pulitzer for You!

“I feel shame.” -Joseph Pulitzer

In a (relatively) shocking turn of events, for the first time since 1977 (and, surprisingly, for the 11th time in history), there will be no Pulitzer Prize awarded for Fiction this year. Say what?

The official press release:


For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

No Award

Nominated as finalists in this category were: “Train Dreams,” by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a novella about a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm; “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf), an adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years, and “The Pale King,” by the late David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company), a posthumously completed novel, animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.

Frankly, I find it hard to believe that there was not a work published in this country last year that was distinguished enough to be worthy of a Pulitzer. Think about all the books you read and loved last year. And all the books that made Top Ten lists or notable lists or won other literary prizes. None of those books are deserving of a Pulitzer? Epic fail, methinks.

Why would I say this? Who cares, right? 

Because picking the recipient of an award is no longer just about bestowing an honor on an individual. In this commercial day and age, the financial implications for all involved goes much further than simple prestige. You slap that gold sticker on The Tinkers and it goes from being a debut novel with an initial print run of 3500 copies that no one stocked to number one on all the bestseller lists across the land over night. Like it or not, people buy and read books based on whether they have that award sticker on the jacket. If anything, we booksellers want, need – nay, deserve those gold stickers almost as much as the winning author.

This story gets even more ridiculous, actually. So there’s a judging panel that goes through all of the year’s submitted books and picks three finalists. This year, the panel was heavy-hitters all around: Susan Larson, book editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, and Michael Cunningham, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours. They read somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 books between them over the course of 9 months and determined that there were three novels worthy of consideration. They then submitted their picks to the Pulitzer board, who decided that in actuality, none of them were worthy. Here’s Corrigan:

“We nominated three novels we believe to be more than Pulitzer-worthy – David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. That the board declined to award the prize to any of these superb novels is inexplicable.”

Denis Johnson.

Snap. So, even though the judging panel’s names are being bandied about in these first few hours after the non-announcement, it’s not their fault at all – all the blame rests on the anonymous cranks on the Pulitzer board itself. So what is it about these finalists that was so unworthy? (Hopefully they’ll at least get the second-place silver stickers.) I loved Swamplandia!, as you no doubt already know, but I’m not sure it was a Pulitzer title. (Looking back at former winners & you see Middlesex, American Pastoral, Gilead, The Road, To Kill a Mockingbird. It just doesn’t fit, really.) And I know this might upset the lifeboat filled with DFW fans, but it seems like nominating The Pale King was just a sympathy vote. (Sorry, but was this unfinished behemoth really his best work? Really?) But, my friends, I do believe that a very strong case can be made for Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Except for the fact that it was originally published in 2002. A minor point.

I know, I know, it didn’t even make the Catapult Notable list for 2011 – how could it possibly be worthy of a “real” literary prize? What the hell do I know? I’m not on the judging panel of any literary prizes! All I know is that Johnson is an American master, that’s why. And in all fairness, Train Dreams just barely missed the cut for the Notables last year:

I easily devoured this little novella in the better part of an afternoon. It’s a simple story, really, on the surface, about the hard life of a early 20th-century working man named Robert Grainier. Johnson essentially puts on a writing clinic with this book, fully evoking a lost time of railroads and hard work, hermit-living and love lost. It seemed to have a sepia-tone to it – an aged look about it. I got completely lost in its too-few pages. In his review, Anthony Doerr put it well in that upon finishing this book, “You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.”

So, not that it matters, but I think Train Dreams is certainly Pulitzer-worthy. You can make an argument for any of the three nominated finalists, of course – this would be why the judging panel selected them. I just think that if there is a panel of professionals selected to sift through all the submissions, the least the Board can do is pick ONE book so we all can see that gold sticker.

*As a late add, Ann Patchett had this to say about Train Dreams in her op-ed piece for the New York Times on 4/18/12: “I don’t think there is a sentence in that book that isn’t perfectly made, and its deeply American story fits with the Pulitzer’s criteria.”  True dat. But wait, there’s more: “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller.”


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