Opinion: The Pulitzer Prize Fiction Fracas

By now, nearly all book lovers have heard that on Monday, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced this year’s awards, declining to award a prize in the fiction category. The interwebs have been jumping with reactions, some outraged, some quiet, some helpful, some not. Here are some of the more interesting (to me) opinions for those who want to catch up on the news or those who just haven’t tired yet of the discussion.

Susan Larson, one of this year’s three jurors for the fiction prize, told NPR’s Morning Edition that she and her fellow jurors were “shocked…angry…and very disappointed” about the board’s decision.

Maureen Corrigan, another juror, elaborated on that in a moderated but scathing piece in the Washington Post about the “flaw in the process.” The jurors found out there would be no fiction winner at the same time as everyone else, and they have been given the same reason as everyone else. At the end of the article she proposes several ways to eliminate the process problem:

One solution— the obvious one — would be to let the jury who reads through the 300-odd works of fiction make the final decision as to the winner. We were invited to serve on the jury because we’re recognized as being, in some way, literary experts. Why, then, turn the final decision over to a board primarily composed of non-literary folk?

Joel Conarroe, a former Pulitzer juror, summarizing the same flaw Corrigan identifies, writes in the Huffington Post that “The Pulitzer Prize is the only literary award I know of whose winner is not selected by a jury of his or her peers.”  The only positive thing that will come of this year’s debacle, he says, is:

…usually when a Pulitzer Prize is announced the two unsuccessful nominees get virtually no notice at all. At least this year, even if for a terribly wrong reason, all three titles have received a good deal of attention.

Ann Patchett, writing in the New York Times, rues the lack of prize from the perspective of a novelist, reader and bookseller. Her impassioned lament concudes:

The world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.

The list of Pulitzer Prize Board members for 2011-2012 can be found on the Pulitzer website, where you can not find an official statement about why they did not award the prize.

But Sarah Weiman, News Editor for Publishers Marketplace, reported in a series of tweets on Monday:

Got off the phone with Pulitzer admin Sig Gissler, who said the board “failed to reach a majority”, hence no fiction winner.

Amusing side note: I mentioned this was the first no-award in the age of the Internet. Gissler: “Why should that make a difference?”

Ahh…this thing you’re reading now, Mr. Gissler, that’s why it makes a difference.

The three nominees this year were David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

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