Like many readers, I was confused and disheartened when the Pulitzer Prize announced there would be no award for fiction this year. For booklovers, and especially for writers, that would be like the Academy Awards announcing there would be no Best Picture. Huh?
Turns out, the Pulitzer jurors were just as shocked as the rest of us. They came up with three finalists: The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, Swamplandia by Karen Russell, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Perhaps too many choices, because the Pulitzer Board, also basically a committee, could not pick one either. Really, this is just another case of death by committee and not a commentary on American letters.
This is not the first time the Pulitzer crew has punted on fiction. Somewhat shockingly, they rejected Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1941, which the judges had picked unanimously, but Columbia’s then president deemed offensive. Two other seminal works were also overlooked that year: The Heart is Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers and Native Son by Richard Wright
The same thing happened in 1974 when the jury voted for Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, again unanimously, but the board overruled. Other important books that year included Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, Burr by Gore Vidal, Breakfast of Champions by Vonnegut, and Sula by Toni Morrison.
Three years later, the Jury picked Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, but the Board gave no prize. Two biggies they also skipped over: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Roots by Alex Haley.
There are several other notable misses in Pulitzer history. There was no award in 1920, even though Winesburg Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, was eligible. Again in 1954, though both A Good Man is Hard to Find & Other Stories by Flannery O’Conner and Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin were in the offing. Ten years later, another blackout in 1964, even though Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was eligible—that stings. But, so were V by Thomas Pynchon and Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut. Note, Where the Wild Things Are and Hop on Pop also came out then—so it was boon year for American readers.
In 1971, they passed over Deliverance by James Dickey, as well as Being There by Jerzy Kosinski and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Now I’m not arguing that that any one of these books should have won the Pulitzer—though others might. What I’m saying is that past years which yielded no Pulitzer for Fiction were all still fairly robust ones for American letters.
2011 was no different. Indeed, Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize just announced that three novels written by American women made the six-book shortlist: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.
On Twitter, via the hashtag #TwitterPulitzer, readers and bookstores have nominated The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (I thought this was a tour de force), The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and several other must-read contenders. Check it out for reading ideas or to post your own #TwitterPulitzer winner.