Friday, April 27, 2012

Entry # 58 - "About Those 2012 Pulitzer Fiction Non-Winners"

"Caribbean Blues" - Jan Bowman - October 2011
This week I’ve thought about the announcement that the Pulitzer Prize Board would not name a fiction winner this year.  Unfortunately, what the public is likely to conclude – incorrectly – is that no works from the 2011 crop of literary fiction were “worthy” of an award this year.  But the reality is that 2011 was a year with many wonderful works of fiction; some of which I intend to read over the summer and are given at the end of this reflections piece.

I’m not alone in suggesting the system used to identify the winners is a flawed process in need of repairs. In a New York Times OP-ED response April 18, 2012, author, Ann Patchett said, “Not awarding a Pulitzer for fiction is a snub to everyone.”  And I am inclined to agree. The process needs revision. All the fine fiction for the past year and all the amazing authors who have written worthy books and who were nominated to the long-list of 300 plus, should be outraged. But it also helps to remember that the winner of the Pulitzer or any other award is not necessarily the best novel of the year in such an arbitrary system. I won’t pretend to write a prescription for how to “fix” this problem, nor do I intend to offer a critical assessment of the three books that were finalists.  Instead I will offer some information and observations.  I’ll also offer some books from 2011 that I intend to read, because I believe they will be interesting literary works.

So how are Pulitzer winners selected?  The administrator of the Pulitzers of Columbia University, Sig Gissler, explained to the New York Times that a three-person fiction jury reviews hundreds (300 or more) works of self or editor nominated fiction over the course of about nine months. These three readers select three books as finalists and send them to the 18-20 person Pulitzer board. The board is expected to read these three books and select the winner. The board is mostly made up of newspaper editors and journalism professors and this year had only one fiction writer, 2008 Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz.

So the board does not consist of fiction writers, but is made up of people with a range of experiences and publication backgrounds, many of whom were previously awarded prizes in various journalism categories. Gissler notes that if they can’t agree, after examining the final three, then no winner is named for that year, something that happened in 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974, 1977 and now 2012.  Gissler goes on the say that “the decision is not meant to be a statement about fiction in general. … And no decision just means that those on the Pulitzer Board in a given year were unable to award a majority of votes to one of these three books.”

It seems to me that the three judges who offered their recommendations did their work with due diligence. They waded through all manner of books.  Some books weren’t so good.  Some were self-nominated, self-published and unedited.  But they also read some amazing work from new and veteran authors. Maureen Corrigan, Georgetown professor of English and a 22-year veteran book critic on NPR’s “Fresh Air” expressed chagrin upon learning that the board had decided not to award a fiction prize.  Michael Cunningham, who won a Pulitzer for his wonderful book, The Hours and Susan Larson, the well-respected book editor for the Times-Picayune served as the other two judges.  All have expressed surprise and frustration about the board’s decision.  It’s as if their year of hard work was wasted effort; after all they’d been wading through fiction since last June.

And yes, do the math. No way did they read every single book submitted to them. If they had read over 300 books each, over the 6-9 month period, they would have read two books a day.  But some could be eliminated easily.  Self published, unedited books probably ended up in the “junk box” within seconds of a quick scan of pages.  Still what remains is a lot of reading for anyone and these three people are busy with “day jobs” so there is that to consider.

And the final three fiction nominees were as different and as similar as car horns and houseflies. Or to put it another way, these books were as different, and yet as similar, as children adopted from different counties would be. But they were reasonable examples of fiction, just as those three children would still be children with various traits in common. Would three other jurors have selected three other books? Given the arbitrary nature of the selection process, probably yes. 

The finalists were a gangly, unorthodox lot. A number of people in the industry suggest that this fact, in and of itself, may have given the Pulitzer board pause.  Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams,” was published as a novella in The Paris Review in 2002, and then was repackaged and released as a hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Twenty-nine year old Karen Russell’s debut novel, “Swamplandia!,” published by Knopf has some rough edges. And David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” was unfinished at the time of his suicide in 2008, and the ten-year old incomplete manuscript was found and stitched together by the author’s wife and his former editor.

So what other notable 2011 works of fiction are flying low on my radar that deserve to be on this year’s reading list?  Here are some, several of which were published before 2011 - in no particular order:

Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories
Michael Ondaatje’s The Cats Table
Erin Morgenstein’s The Night Circus
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Russell Bank’s Lost Memory of Skin
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones
Antonya Nelson’s Living to Tell: A Novel
Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic
Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers
Justin Torres’s We the Animals
Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang
Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder
Chris Adrian’s The Great Night
Mat Johnson’s Pym
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

Finally, Ann Patchett wraps up her April 18, 2012, New York Times  OP-ED piece by saying,
“Reading fiction is important.  It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”

Here are a couple of links on the topic:

"Atlantic Sunrise" - Jan Bowman - May 2011
“Houseflies and car horns have something in common. Most American car horns beep in the key of F. The housefly buzzes in the key of F.”  So! What in the world does this suggest to you?           --New York Public Library Desk Reference.

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


  1. If three judges and the public on Fox Network's American Idol can pick a winner than why not a Pulitzer Prize Board?
    Why not let the readers vote?

    1. Interesting Idea. Don't know if they've ever considered this.
      There are pros and cons with the idea. But at least we'd have a more level "reading" field than we do at the present. What do other readers think?