No 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction: Why Not?

Although conspicuous by its absence, I did not specifically mention in my “2012 Pulitzer Prize Winners” that the Pulitzer Prize board did not award a Pulitzer Prize in fiction — the first time in 35 years. (There was no Pulitzer prize awarded for editorial writing either)

I am sure that most of our readers noticed it and it is also likely that some were quite upset about it, and/or curious as to why (not) — perhaps even in “collective shock and sputtering” as the New York Times says about the publishing industry: “One day after the Pulitzer Prize board said it would not award a Pulitzer in fiction for the first time in 35 years, the publishing industry was still seething, with some going as far as offering surrogate winners.”

Some of those “surrogate winners” and nominations offered by publishing houses and other literary organizations and individuals include: “The Great Night” by Chris Adrian, “We the Animals” by Justin Torres, “Pym” by Mat Johnson, Chad Harbach’s “Art of Fielding, “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka, “The Leftovers” by Tom Perrotta and “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Our own Robert Stein, somewhat disappointed and tongue-in-cheek — I believe — offers “Obama” as “the year’s greatest fiction.”

Today, Letters to the Editor in the Times — including from authors and one from a former judge for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction — reflect agreement (even “ecstasy”), disagreement (even “dismay) with the judges’ decision and rationalization, too.

From a professor of English and director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute:

Pulitzer Prizes often have little to do with the quality of the books that win or fail to win…

But the selection process in the various competitions hardly inspires confidence in any outcome…

The year 2011 was rich in fiction, a year when major books were brought out by writers not included on the list of finalists. I can only wonder why the jurors were not asked to submit to the Pulitzer board a second list of three plausible candidates for the prize, given the importance of these prizes to the industry.

From the former Pulitzer Prize judge:

As a former judge for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, I can assure your readership of two things about the process:

First, not all books are read by the judges, nor do all books necessarily deserve close review …

Second, the choices that the judges make are not attained necessarily by consensus, and, if anything, may reflect each judge’s particular aesthetic preferences, cultural biases, susceptibility to hype and other subjective factors…

So it’s my guess that in choosing to pass on selecting a Pulitzer winner in fiction this year, the Pulitzer board, in having its own criteria and tastes, may have simply made the same kind of decisions as did the nominating panel, with the difference being that a consensus about a particular title could not, in the end, be equitably reached.

From a reader in Portland, Me.:

If anything, not naming a Pulitzer fiction winner stirs up the field and encourages writers to dream up something better, different, more innovative. What a fine and happy conclusion: the great American novel of the decade has yet to be written, and it could be by anyone.

From an author:

… I’m ecstatic about the lack of a winner in the fiction category this year.

The board’s indecision seems to me a more truthful statement about the nature of such prizes than saying a certain book was No. 1. The fiction that one book of fiction is the best of the year is ingrained in our book culture.

From a New York City reader:

I share Ann Patchett’s dismay at the failure of the Pulitzer board to award a prize for fiction this year. And I thank her for giving me a fine list of good books published last year, which will keep me happily reading for the next several months.

(My apologies for providing only excerpts of the excellent letters due to space limitations. They can be read in full context here.)

But how are the Pulitzer winners selected?

Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzers for Columbia University, explains to the Times:

A winner is usually selected in a two-step process in which a three-member fiction jury reviews hundreds of books, settles on three finalists and sends those finalists to the Pulitzer board.

The board then reads the books and meets for two days to determine a winner. A majority is required, and this year the judges could not come up with one.

Whenever they make a decision, it’s not meant to be a statement about fiction in general. It’s just a statement that none was able to receive a majority.

At “The Pulitzer Prizes“ one does not find much additional information or guidance:

The following provisions govern the award of the Pulitzer Prizes and Fellowships established in Columbia University by the will of the first Joseph Pulitzer:

The prizes and fellowships are awarded by Columbia University on the recommendation of The Pulitzer Prize Board. The Board meets twice annually. The prizes are announced during the spring.

Nominating Jurors for the prizes are appointed by the Board in each category. They are invited to exercise their independent and collective judgment and submit three nominations. The Nominating Jurors are advised that their nominations are for the information and advice of The Pulitzer Prize Board only inasmuch as the Board is charged with the responsibility and authority under the will of Joseph Pulitzer to select, accept, substitute or reject these nominations, and may in extraordinary circumstances offer its own. Each Nominating Jury should submit to the Board three nominations in its category. These must be listed in alphabetical order and each of the three must be accompanied by a statement as to why the jury believes that this particular entry merits a Pulitzer Prize. It is not a part of the jury’s charge to offer its preferences among its three nominees.

On the question of “What are the criteria for the judging of The Pulitzer Prizes?”

There are no set criteria for the judging of the Prizes. The definitions of each category (see How to Enter or Administration page) are the only guidelines. It is left up to the Nominating Juries and The Pulitzer Prize Board to determine exactly what makes a work “distinguished.”

What is the prize — in addition to the honor? “For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).”

Of course winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize in Letters “can be an instant boost to sales and is one of the most closely watched awards in the publishing industry.”

The Times:

In the book world there is no prize like the Pulitzer. For an author it carries more weight and prestige than any other prize, even the much celebrated National Book Award. Sales typically increase, partly because Pulitzer-winning books tend to be translated into more languages and sold in more countries.

This year, with no winner, the finalists may see such boost in interest and sales.

About those finalists:

As a group, the finalists were unorthodox and, as many people in the industry have suggested, may have given the Pulitzer board pause. They were Denis Johnson for “Train Dreams,” a book that was originally published as a novella in The Paris Review in 2002 and then was repackaged and released as a hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Karen Russell, whose debut novel, “Swamplandia!,” was published by Knopf when she was only 29; and David Foster Wallace for “The Pale King,” a book that was unfinished at the time of his death in 2008 and was later completed by his editor.

You have seen above some of the suggestions for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Do you have one?

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Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

  • zephyr

    I have to wonder how David Foster Wallace would have felt about his editor “completing” his book? As for the absence of a winner.. well, maybe the reader from Portland, ME has it right. One has to wonder how the finalists feel about it though, afterall t’s one thing to lose to another writer, but to lose when no winner is selected? Maybe Robert Stein was right, the relentless and bizarre fiction created by the political right should have at least been a contender.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    zephyr says:

    Maybe Robert Stein was right, the relentless and bizarre fiction created by the political right should have at least been a contender

    Probably too bizarre even for fiction. I am sure there is a category for it –not yet recognized by Pulitzer — perhaps under “swiftboating” or “muckraking.”

  • http://hisvorpalsword.com HART WILLIAMS, Guest Voice Columnist

    I would think that if no prizes were awarded in two major categories, it indicates deep infighting among the final jurists.

    BTW: I don’t know why there was no fiction prize given in 1977, but in 1974, Thomas Pynchon’s tour de force, “Gravity’s Rainbow” was specifically NOT given the prize:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity's_Rainbow

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks, for your comments, Hart.

    I didn’t know about the 1974 exception.

    Furthermore, I had not heard of “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

    Went to your link, WOW!

    What an unusual, complex and interesting work,

    Just from Wikipedia’s “review”:

    “ transgressive,” frequently “digressive,” and “traverses detailed, specialist knowledge drawn from a wide range of disciplines,” with over 400 characters “and involving many different threads of narrative which intersect and weave around one another,” etc., etc.

    Have you read the four-part work?

  • http://rsmithing.com rsmithing

    Vert well researched post, and enjoyable to read.

    I can’t help but think this is a PR stunt. I can understand the reasoning of not actually being able to come to a conclusion, but come on… why even nominate anything? And as it turns out, we’re discussing it perhaps more so than ever. Last year there was no prize for breaking news, now this? I actually write about this and link to this post at: Pulitzer Prize – NOT! and would welcome your thoughts on this theory I suggest there.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Hi Richard,

    Thank you for reading my piece and for commenting on it.

    As to the (real) reasons for not awarding a Prize for fiction, of course only the panel knows. Your suggestion that it could be a PR stunt is interesting and possible. I find that your readers, the NYT readers (see “Letters”) and TMV readers also give interesting reasons and some cover my thoughts, too.

    But as to coming up with a plausible candidate reason — in addition to those already suggested — I have to admit, I can not.