You may be hearing this for the first time: no winner for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction this year.

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The Pulitzer Prize awards authors for their works in letters: poetry, drama, history, music, various awards in journalism, and of course, literary fiction. Each year, a jury of three critics gets together to decide on three finalists based on the submissions they read over a six-month period. The announcement of the year’s winners is then made public in the start of the year following (so the 2012 announcement addresses the 2011 entries). A Pulitzer Prize is popularly taken as an indication of a “good read”—a Pulitzer winner becomes a nuclear icon of the best books. Some of America’s most loved authors and poets have been winners of the Pulitzer. Robert Frost, for example, won four Pulitzers in his lifetime. Robert Olen Butler, winner in 1993 for his novel A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, jokes that his “obituary will read, ‘Pulitzer Prize winner.’”

Readers have been baffled by the 2012 announcement that in fiction, there is no winner, and instead only three finalists: Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf); and The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company).

The Internet is rampant with angry blogs and letters to newspaper editors about the announcement, yet there remains some cloudiness regarding the judging process. It starts with three jurors, who are highly seasoned readers: a critic-in-residence at Georgetown University, the former book editor of the Times-Picayune, and even a former winner in fiction. Judging for Pulitzer is one of the high points in their careers. Jurors decide on three finalists and then send those titles on to the next tier of decision-making—the Pulitzer board—which is comprised of 18 people who juror Maureen Corrigan has described as “non-literary folk.” Corrigan has spoken out along with juror Susan Larson about the bunk decision.

As Larson said in an NPR radio announcement, the Pulitzer board’s silence on the decision has sent out “mixed messages” to the public. Like many other reading geeks, I joined the troubled masses. What could this mean for the future of fiction? Will people come to believe that there was just no good fiction this year? Did nothing please the Pulitzer board? I felt pretty disappointed in the vague criteria I found on the Pulitzer website: “If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board, the amount of such prize or prizes may be withheld.” What measuring stick do they use to determine a winner? A mixed message, indeed.

For fiction, 2011 was a good year, and the value of being a finalist should not be curtailed. Can you imagine a Colorado College professor deciding that a class of hardworking students collectively didn’t deserve a letter-grade, but instead just a P for ‘Pass’? A passing grade from CC is good, but no cigar. This was my initial impression regarding the lack of a winner—that all the books were falling into the same inadequate pass-fail track. Except, of course, the whole publishing industry really depends on the Pulitzer’s outcome. In addition to the winner’s reward of $10,000—some serious bank for a writer—publishing skyrockets for winners and finalists.

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Publishing is in a heated climate right now. Obviously not everyone is an English major or a professional critic. At a time when the Department of Justice has decided to support Amazon.com as a bookseller, rather than places like Borders or Poor Richard’s, it is scary to think that weekend-book-readers might also imagine a pass/fail Pulitzer. Will they think it is just a bad year for fiction?

Part of me feels a slight sympathy for the Pulitzer board (I will keep my defense brief because, personally, I don’t believe they deserve an extended one). Along the same classroom analogy: the way professors see grade inflation in college classrooms, maybe the Pulitzer board, too, feels there is “fiction inflation.” Why say a bad book is a good book if it isn’t? It sounds silly, but for some people the idea of good books and bad books is real and makes a lot of sense. It was a great year for engaging, inspiring and thought-provoking fiction, including the Pulitzer shortlist as well as many of the books that did not receive recognition. I had Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding on my shortlist, but if it can’t be so, then it can’t be so.

If you’re looking for a good book this summer, you should of course pick up a copy of any of the finalists’ works. Other good options can be found on the NPR lists, which are reviewed by plenty of the wise. The website GoodReads.com is another useful option that recommends books meeting your interests based on other books you have read and rated. In the meantime though, Pulitzer needs to address the flaw in the way they decide winners. In the fiction division, there are 10 other instances of the Pulitzer board in a stalemate when deciding a winner. This is the first time since 1977 that the board has announced no winner. As a point of comparison, the poetry division has only once not chosen a winner. Being more of a poetry fanatic myself, W.H. Auden’s sonnet, “The Novelist” comes to mind: “Encased in talent like a uniform / The rank of every poet is well known.” The market for fiction is so entirely different than poetry, full of blustery disagreements on what constitutes a “good book.”

Just because people struggle to agree does not mean the books were no good. To prevent mishaps like this in the future, Pulitzer needs to reevaluate their judging system. Perhaps 19 board members rather 18 so a majority vote is possible? It is their money, yes. It is a lot of money, yes. Pulitzer is a prestigious organization and wants to preserve the award for the Robert Penn Warrens, the Cormac McCarthys, the John Updikes, Toni Morrisons and Harper Lees. The novels selected have great literary worth in sentence and solace. Pulitzer realizes what effect their award has on readers and the depressed publishing industry. So why now?

Illustrations by Jackson Buckley, guest artist

 

This article first appeared in Cipher Magazine in the May issue of 2012. The original article can be found here.
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