By Osita Nwanevu
Last month, for the first time since 1977, no Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded despite the selection of three finalists by a panel of jurors: The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Although the outcome of this year’s selection process was far from unprecedented (the Pulitzer board has passed on choosing a winner for fiction 11 times) many in the literary world were quick to express disbelief.
“…really I would have thought that any of those three could make a plausible winner,” said Lorin Stein, editor of the influential Paris Review. Even some the jurors responsible for picking the finalists the board was presented with were nonplussed. “…we three jurors found out Monday that there would be no 2012 prize in fiction,” wrote juror Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post. “That terrible news capped what was otherwise the greatest honor of my career as a book critic and professor of literature.”
With a gag order on discussions on the board’s proceedings, we’ll likely never know what exactly happened when time came to choose a winner. Many have speculated about the unconventionality of the finalists playing a role: Train Dreams was published in the Paris Review a decade ago before being released as a hardcover last year while The Pale King was left unfinished after Wallace’s death in 2008 and later competed by his editor. But in the end, no concrete answer has appeared, leaving many to speculate.
What is certain, though, is that there is a widely shared sense that the literary world lost something with this year’s outcome. Even the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes was willing to acknowledge as much: “We are always sorry when people are disappointed. I always like to think that giving an award is like sprinkling fairy dust on the recipients.”
To many, that “fairy dust” amounts to marketing power. Pulitzer winners and nominees significantly prop up book sales in following months more than prizes like the National Book Awards due to bigger marketing pushes by publishers, the releases of new translations sold overseas, and a general increase in public awareness. For instance, according to Publisher’s Weekly, last year’s winner, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, saw its weekly sales triple after awards were announced. The sales numbers for 2010’s winner, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, increased even more dramatically. Only 40 copies were sold in the week prior to awards being announced. After it took the prize, weekly sales eventually stabilized at around 5,000 copies.
he sales boost would have been a welcome bright spot in what’s otherwise been a rough year for the book world: the publishing industry’s ongoing downward spiral was compounded by the Justice Department’s recent crackdown on alleged collusion by Apple and several major publishers on setting e-book prices. Desperate for a bump, some publishers tried to create their own buzz. Doubleday took to twitter with the hashtag #twitterpulitzer asking users to pick their own winners, while Knopf began stamping all new copies of its Swamplandia! with seals noting its finalist status.
In short, the Pulitzer is about money, and the open recognition of this by both writers and their publishers made the loudmouthed indignation following the “snub” seem petty and untoward. Certainly, the industry needs all the help it can get financially. But you would have expected the typically lofty-minded denizens of the literary world to focus on the abstract notions of literary merit it normally clings to. Even if the trade is suffering, its main object, the book, lives on. And a good book is made good by nebulous, subjective, and beautiful things writers have tried for centuries to both perfect and deconstruct.
Given this, awards for writing are a presumptuous undertaking in the first place. But publishers and authors are likely under no illusions as to whether or not a Pulitzer nod confers actual artistic legitimation on works. How could it when the awarding system, as pointed out by just about everyone who reported on the controversy, is so horribly flawed?
Novels can be submitted for nomination by anyone with $50 and a poor grasp of basic probability. Three jurors, normally writers, academics, or critics then read all of the nominees. This year, that meant each juror had to read some 314 (!) novels over the course of six months. The jurors then pick three finalists, and the winner is voted on by an inexplicably even-numbered board of mostly non-writers.
But leaving aside the absurdity of the process and the controversy , the quality of the finalists is unquestionable and none of them are worse books than they were pre-controversy just because they didn’t win. And as far as sales go, as noted by Paul Bogaads, spokesman for Knopf, both the controversy and nomination itself could provide boosts: “…since this year there was not a winner and there’s much conversation about the finalists, this may be an opportunity and a catalyst for sales.” But as participants in a trade that adds so much to our lives and our understandings of ourselves and others, writers and publishers should quell their anxiety about sales figures and abandon the notion that the Pulitzer’s nonsensical current system, or frankly any system, can produce a decisive verdict on the most “distinguished” work in the American literary canon every single year.