Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

No Pulitzer for Fiction


Soooo…this is awkward, no? For the first time since 1977, no Pulitzer Prize was awarded for fiction. Ann Patchett says this means we all lose, and I agree. I’ve never thought very carefully about how books are selected for these kinds of big awards. I guess I imagined a bunch of really smart people passionately arguing with each other, but that doesn’t seem to be what happened here. The voting committee members filled out ballots, and no book got a majority of the votes, so nobody won. Look, we already have a completely dysfunctional Congress that operates on those principles, can’t we do a little better in the literary world? Here are some process suggestions for the Pulitzer Board to consider for next year:

  • Have more voting members. Why should 18 people get to decide this prize of prizes?
  • Treat it like you’re the Vatican choosing the next Pope. If there’s no consensus in the voting, hash it out and vote again. Lock the doors: no one leaves until someone has changed his or her mind.
  • Give the prize to more than one book. I know this is radical, but the YA National Book Award debacle suggests to me that if prize committees screw up, or can’t decide between two fabulous books, maybe they should choose them BOTH. Our obsession with ranking things number one is exhausting. None of the books on the Pulitzer shortlist (The Pale King, Train Dreams, and Swamplandia!) are objectively “better” than any of the others. Loosen up, people. Let’s love as many things as we can.
  • Do you have any other suggestions for the Pulitzer Board? How should we choose the great fiction we celebrate?

    They seem to be settling in quite nicely.....
    (These disapproving bunnies are sending the Pulitzer Board a message…)


    Join the Discussion

    • Celeste

      I agree, Charlotte–especially with the last two! My sense is that what actually happened is a voting deadlock–but why does that mean there should be no prize at all? (Imagine if the same thing happened in our political voting system: “Hey, you guys are tied! I guess we have no president for the next 4 years.) The message the lack of prize sends is so disheartening for readers and writers alike.

    • Hi Charlotte,

      What do you mean by “objectively”? I was a bit confused by that. Are you saying that criteria to judge a book are always and only “subjective?”

    • Charlotte Boulay

      Hi Daniel,

      No, I don’t think the criteria are only subjective–there are certainly objective ways to judge good writing. The sentence would probably be better off without “objective” in it at all. I guess what I was trying to say is that I don’t find labeling one of those three novels “the best” to be particularly helpful as a way of considering the merits and drawbacks of any of them.

    • I re-read Patchett’s essay, and while her points are good, I feel uncomfortable treating prizes like the Pulitzers as marketing devices for the industry. I suppose I imagined it guaranteed a certain quality of work (I feel very naive writing this down). In that sense, the committee should be free to offer the prize to no one if no one matched up.

      But I completely take your point that, if was simply an oddity of their voting system, to not award on that basis is stupid. Get back in there and try again!

    • Celeste Ng

      Steve Almond made an interesting argument about this on NPR’s Here & Now earlier this week–essentially arguing that putting too much emphasis on prizes like the Pulitzer cheapens literature by making it into a sporting event:

      http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2012/04/25/fiction-pulitzer-prize

    • Lee Thomas

      I think Almond makes a good argument about the “human experience” of art. Yes, I have bought books simply because they won a prize. That’s probably what matters most to both publisher and author in terms of paying the rent. However, my favorite works of art – literature, painting, music, etc. – usually only overlap the prizewinners by a slim margin on the Venn diagram of the two. It’s harder to burn for warmth as an artist, but I’m more likely to press that latter category on everyone I possibly can.

    • Pingback: Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » The ghost in the (writing) machine()

    Literary Partners