April 27, 2015

Pulitzer Prize Board: Respect our authority!

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It was either this image, or a still of Eric Cartman saying "Respect my authority!"

It was either this image, or a still of Eric Cartman saying “Respect my authority!”

Last week, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced the winners of the 2015 prizes. The fiction award went to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—which was hailed in these very digital pages as “the year’s breakout work of literary fiction”—and the finalists were Joyce Carol Oates’s Lovely, Dark, Deep, Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, and Richard Ford’s ludicrously titled Let Me Be Frank With You.

What was striking about the announcement was that there were three finalists, not two. Usually, the Pulitzer judges recommend three books to the board, which proceeds to choose one as the winner, with the other two named finalists. But this year there were three.

Why did this happen? Jennifer Maloney, the Wall Street Journal’s terrific books and publishing reporter, looked into the story:

As the Pulitzer board was reading those three finalists over the winter, “there was some worry expressed among board members” and the board asked the jury to submit a fourth finalist, the prize administrator, Mike Pride, said in an interview Tuesday . . .

It isn’t clear whether Mr. Doerr’s book was the fourth submitted to the board. Pulitzer officials declined to say whether it was the final submission, and jury members declined to comment on the process.

Maloney reports that while unusual, this process doesn’t violate any bylaws—the board can ask the jurors to submit a fourth nominee if, for whatever reason, the first three don’t fit the bill.

This outcome is certainly better than what happened three years ago, when the jurors submitted three books—David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams—and the board refused to select any of them. The fiction award was thus not given out at all in 2012, which led to considerable outrage on the part of everyone other than the members of the Pulitzer board, who seemed satisfied with their decision. (The novelist Michael Cunningham, one of the judges that year, wrote a terrific essay about, among other things, the frustrations of the 2012 non-awards.)

So yes, it’s certainly better that the board asked for a fourth finalist, rather than rejecting three out of hand. And indeed, given the secrecy with which the board operates, we can’t know what the motivations for the request might have been. (Maybe one of the Pulitzer board members only gives out awards when someone named Richard is a finalist.)

But at the same time: what the hell, Pulitzer board? Is it really that hard to choose one book from three finalists? This year’s judges—Chicago Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor, NPR’s great book reviewer Alan Cheuse, and Southern Methodist University professor David Haynes—aren’t exactly untrustworthy individuals. Why second-guess?

This year’s intervention and the 2012 non-award are not outliers: the Pulitzer Prize board has a long history of quibbling with—and overruling—the fiction jurors. A 1984 New York Times article called “Pulitzer Controversies” chronicled some of these . . . well, Pulitzer controversies. In some cases, the board quibbled with jurors’ preferences—in 1980, for example, the jurors’ first choice was Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, but the board selected Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. But there were more dramatic conflicts:

Some years, the board has decided not to give an award at all. That happened in 1977, when the jury recommended giving the Pulitzer to A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, a memoir and first book by a 74-year-old retired professor of English from the University of Chicago. That also happened in 1974, after the jurors, Benjamin DeMott, Elizabeth Hardwick and Alfred Kazin, unanimously recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

And that’s not all. In 1971, according to a somewhat mysterious book called the Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, the board “‘seriously discussed recognizing Eudora Welty for her lifelong achievements as a leading American writer,’ but in the end opted for giving ‘no award.’” (The Chronicle includes, in an appendix, juror’s notes to the board. Their citation of Don DeLillo’s Underworld is a work of art.)

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction seems to be the only major literary prize with so many non-decisions or quasi-decisions in its recent history. There are no missing years in the history of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, but over the last forty years, the Pulitzer board has failed to award a fiction prize on four separate occasions.

What makes the Pulitzer board so prone to negation? Is it the awards’ two-tiered structure? Or is the board itself, which in cases both infamous (the Gravity’s Rainbow fiasco) and minor (this year’s somewhat ambiguous process) has overruled the experts chosen to come up with the most worthy books published in a given year? The board, of course, is large—it has eighteen members—and any large group is likely to find it hard to make consequential decisions, especially if some members hold strong opinions.

But a book award should award books! The most troubling part of Maloney’s article was this: “Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Paul Gigot, who took the helm of the Pulitzer board on Friday, said the board in 2012 was comfortable with its unpopular decision not to award a prize for fiction.”

The board should absolutely not feel comfortable with its decision! It was a bad call that was thankfully avoided this year. Cunningham put it well at the end of his essay:

A literary prize is, at best, one way of drawing readers to a book that deserves more serious attention than it might have gotten without a prize. A faulty track record doesn’t invalidate the attempt to say, annually, to anyone who might be listening, “You really should read this one.”

Which is why the committee’s decision to withhold the prize entirely is so unfortunate. An American writer has been ill served and underestimated. Readers have been deprived of what might have been a great literary discovery or might have offered them the bittersweet but genuine satisfaction of saying, “Really? That book? What were those people thinking of?”

As long as the records of the Pulitzer board’s deliberations remain sealed, we’ll have to speculate—and scrutinize—from afar.

 

Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.

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