If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard that the Pulitzer Prize board declined to award a prize in fiction this year. I was one of three jurors — along with the former books editor for the Times-Picayune, Susan Larson, and novelist Michael Cunningham, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for “The Hours.”
Like everyone else, we three jurors found out Monday that there would be no 2012 prize in fiction. That terrible news capped what was otherwise the greatest honor of my career as a book critic and professor of literature. As Susan, the chairman of our jury, has put it, for a golden space, she, Michael and I were privileged to enjoy membership in what must surely be one of the most intense book clubs imaginable. Over six exhilarating and, sometimes, anxious months, we read through some 300 novels and short-story collections. We argued and enthused about books regularly, via emails, conference calls and one face-to-face meeting. By late November, we had to reach some decisions. In the end, we nominated David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” and Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!”
I’m angry on behalf of those novels.
We’ll never know why the Pulitzer board declined to award the prize this year, because, as is the board members’ right, they’ve drawn their Wizard of Oz curtain closed tight. We jurors have heard only the same explanation that everyone else has heard: The board could not reach a majority vote on any of the novels. I’d like to think that “The Pale King,” “Train Dreams” and “Swamplandia!” each garnered such fierce partisans on the board that no compromise could be reached. Right. Whenever I succumb to that fantasy, the words written by the winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in fiction ring in my head: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Hemingway did not win for “The Sun Also Rises,” the novel that ends with those immortal words but, rather, for “The Old Man and The Sea,” which is rather short, about 90 pages. One of the charges the literary couch quarterbacks have made against Johnson’s novel is that it is too short, in fact, novella length. But why should that matter? “The Great Gatsby,” arguably our greatest American novel, is short, too, and short-story collections are eligible for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Critics also have complained that since “Train Dreams” was first published in 2002 in the Paris Review, the book version is somehow redundant. (I know you all must have read it there first. Current circulation figures of the print edition of the Paris Review? 16,000.)
Some second-guessers have also shrugged off our nomination of “Swamplandia!” for being a debut novel by a then-29-year-old author, as though literary excellence has, like the presidency, a constitutional age requirement. Harper Lee was a mere five years older than Russell when she finished “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won the Pulitzer in 1961. Philip Roth was all of 26 when he published his short-story collection “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959 and, the following year, it won the National Book Award.
I’ve been contacted by journalists from U.S., Canadian, Brazilian and Danish media outlets. My fellow jurors have also spoken to journalists near and far. Everybody wants to know if there’s “a crisis in American letters.” No, no crisis there, but rather a flaw in the process by which the Pulitzer Prize is decided.
Here are some suggestions for change, all my own: One solution — the obvious one — would be to let the jury that 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 nonliterary folk ?
And, finally, how about changing the rules so that the winner is determined by a plurality, rather than a majority of votes on the board. (And — hello! — given that there are 18 voting members of the Pulitzer board, perhaps one more body should be added to break any potential ties.)
The Pulitzer is too prestigious and crucial an award to book lovers, authors and the publishing industry to be sporadically — and unaccountably — withheld.
Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air” and a regular reviewer for The Post’s Book World.