The Columbia University School of Journalism handed out its prestigious Pulitzer Prizes this week in twenty-one categories. I didn’t pay much attention to most of them, which honor various achievements in news reporting, although I did note that Seattle’s own Eli Sanders was recognized for his Feature Writing in the Stranger. The award that always gets the most attention is Fiction, and this year the buzz is even louder because nobody won. That’s right—no prize for anyone. Even this year’s judges (novelist Michael Cunningham, critic and English professor Maureen Corrigan, and newspaper books editor Susan Larson) are up in arms about the snub. They approved three finalists (Denis Johnson for Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace for The Pale King, and Karen Russell for Swamplandia!) and handed them to the Pulitzer board of trustees for the ultimate decision, but that august body couldn’t reach a consensus and isn’t talking about why. Now, it’s possible that support for at least a couple of the nominated books was so fervent that the group deadlocked, but the more likely explanation is that they were underwhelmed by their choices.
This has happened several times before, but not for almost thirty years. The incident I still take personally occurred in 1974, when the judges unanimously recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to win, but the board refused them, citing the novel as “turgid” and “obscene.” Maybe that’s what the judges liked about it. Anyway, the 2012 non-decision once again points out what makes the Pulitzers unique, for good and ill. The judges, always literary experts of one kind or another, are different every year, while the board has twenty members drawn from journalism schools and news organizations, serving rotating three-year terms. There’s often conflict between the specialized tastes of the judges and the allegedly more mainstream outlook of the board. Much of the time the tension is productive, and the fiction that wins has appeal for both groups, but some of the time…well, that’s what happened this week.
So no author has an extra ten thousand dollars in his or her pocket to go along with the sales boost that the 2012 Pulitzer usually brings, but in the long run, the controversy probably benefits the world of books. People are talking about literature, which can only be a good thing, and now we all get to decide who really did deserve the prize. Given that we at Island Books had Train Dreams on our year-end ten best list, I suppose that would have been our consensus pick among the finalists, but the slate has been cleared and that’s all out the window now. Who to choose? I might stump for Open City by Teju Cole.
The novel is a debut work that focuses on the meanderings, mental and physical, of a psychiatric resident; he’s Nigerian but living in Manhattan. He roams the city incessantly, pondering recondite topics in art, history, and philosophy while dwelling on his isolation, only occasionally making contact of any kind with those around him. It’s a novel of drift rather than drive, strongly reminiscent of the output of late German writer W.G. Sebald. I read Open City months ago and found it intriguing, though sometimes opaque. It’s just come out in paperback, and seeing it again I realize that its images and events have been quietly simmering in the back of my head for months. The measured way the narrator reveals himself has left a strong impression, like a guest at a party you initially overlook but who proves a fascinating conversationalist when you lean in close. I’m sure not everyone will find the book as compelling as I did, but it’s just the kind of unusual, important fiction that deserves to be rewarded and would have glowed under the Pulitzer spotlight.
Ask me again tomorrow and I might vote a different way, of course. Chris Adrian’s The Great Night? Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife? Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station? Enigmatic Pilot by Kris Sakunssemm? Arthur Phillips’ The Tragedy of Arthur? I have no idea if any of these were even on the judges’ radar (the only thing I really know about the Pulitzer Prize is that you’re supposed to say “pull it, sir” not “pyool-it-sir”) but they probably should have been. I’ll have to mull over my decision, but in the meanwhile, I’d love to know which book you think should have taken home the trophy.