Last week, the Pulitzer Prize committee made a decision that has been made only 10 times before. And for the first time since 1977, no prize was awarded in the fiction category.
Publishers are understandably upset. After the Nobel, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is the most coveted award in the literary world. Winning the prize never fails to dramatically improve the career of the recipient. A win leads to a huge increase in sales, something every publisher wants.
The Pulitzer has often been awarded to landmark classics of American Fiction, such as “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell in 1937, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck in 1940, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee in 1961, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison in 1988 and “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth in 1998, to name a few. And if someone were to form a list of the best novels of the last decade, Pulitzer Prize-winning entries such as “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon, “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides and “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy would be no-brainers for inclusion.
It’s understandable that the absence of the prize might lead you to think 2011 was a particularly weak year for fiction. But this isn’t necessarily true.
The winner is decided by a two-step process. First, three jurors (usually a combination of a book critic, an academic and a fiction writer) read hundreds of entries sent by anyone who wishes to pay a small fee. From those, the jury selects three books to present to the Pulitzer board, which usually selects one of those books as a winner, but occasionally chooses books not on the list. The board is composed of editors from various acclaimed newspapers and professors at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In addition to their jobs, they select winners in every category. There is no winner for fiction this year because the board could not produce a majority vote for a single work, not because every book was bad.
The refusal to award the prize reflects the complicated and delicate state of today’s publishing industry. In an age where eBook readers and self-publishing have never been more popular and the five major book publishers are being hit by a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice for trying to defend their old business model from Amazon, the publishing industry is experiencing a major, unpredictable shift.
The nominees for the prize this year, in their bizarreness, symbolize this uncertainty.
“The Pale King” is an unfinished novel by the late David Foster Wallace. “Train Dreams,” by Denis Johnson, is a novella that was actually first published 10 years ago in The Paris Review, only to be posthumously published in standalone book form last year. “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell, written when the author was only 29, is about a family of alligator wrestlers in Florida.
And Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, which frequently overlaps with the Pulitzer winner, did not even appear on the nominee list.
It’ll be interesting to see who will win the prize for 2012’s books. Will it be Binghamton University alum Nathan Englander, whose short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” has received considerable critical acclaim? Or maybe British author J.K. Rowling, whose first “adult” novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” set for release in September, will take the win. Or perhaps “Telegraph Avenue” will give Michael Chabon a repeat win. It could be also someone else entirely or the committee may even fail to choose a winner again. Whatever the result, eyes will be trained on the prize for next year.