Books — April 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm

No 2012 Pulitzer Winner For Fiction: A Good Or Bad Thing?

Cheryl Salvador


On Tuesday, Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally Jackson Books in SoHo, said she would present her own awards to “The Great Night” by Chris Adrian, “We the Animals” by Justin Torres and “Pym” by Mat Johnson. Publishers Weekly posted a list of books from 2011 that could have been chosen, including Chad Harbach’s “Art of Fielding” and “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka. On Twitter, Doubleday suggested the Twitterverse choose its own Pulitzer winner (using the hashtag #TwitterPulitzer), immediately prompting nominations like “The Leftovers” by Tom Perrotta and “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides. Striking a rare note of optimism, publishers of the three fiction finalists said they hoped the books would nevertheless get a boost in a rare year without a winner in the spotlight. “In years past it’s the Pulitzer winner that captures all the attention and all the sales,” said Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Alfred A. Knopf. “But since this year there was not a winner and there’s much conversation about the finalists, this may be an opportunity and a catalyst for sales.” The collective shock and sputtering in the publishing industry began on Monday, when the Pulitzer Prize board announced the winners in journalism, letters, drama and music. 

From the New York Times.

For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000): No Award. Nominated as finalists in this category were: “Train Dreams,” by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a novella about a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm; “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf), an adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years, and “The Pale King,” by the late David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company), a posthumously completed novel, animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.

See the full 2012 Pulitzer press release here.

Why? That was the first question that popped into my head when I read the news that there was no Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction this year. That one, basic question in my mind led to more thoughts. Wasn’t there even a single book published in 2011 that deserves the award? Were the stories written by great writers so below the standards that the Pulitzer panel couldn’t bear to give away the coveted award? Is the absence of a winner has something to do with the selection process? With all these questions circling my mind, I tried to read more news articles about the shocking event, which actually angered the publishing industry, to find out the reason behind it but to no avail. The Pulitzer Board refused to discuss the result in detail and just simply stated that there were a lot of factors involved in the decision.

I can clearly understand the disappointment coming from many publishers, writers, and even readers. Yes, such a decision can happen but it is very unusual. The last time no one scooped the Pulitzer for fiction was 35 years ago and everyone in the print industry has been awaiting this year’s victor only to receive the sad news. Even this year’s members of the jury for fiction – Susan Larson, Maureen Corrigan, and former Pulitzer winner Michael Cunningham – expressed regret over the lack of winner, which is a hard blow to the publishing industry. Well, why wouldn’t they be disappointed? They spent six months reading around 300 novels each to screen the candidates but it now seemed like their hardwork has been for nothing. They recommended three finalists: “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace, and “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell but the panel failed to find a work of fiction that can receive the majority of the Board’s votes and that’s good enough for the Pulitzer.

In my opinion, this surprising turn of events is quite disturbing in a way. Unless there’s something wrong with the system of choosing the Pulitzer winners, it says something negative about the quality of literature these days. Even though the Board insisted that the decision doesn’t imply anything about fiction in general, the fact that no one was declared the winner shows that no story stood out in a way that meets the award-giving body’s standards. But on the other hand, the lack of winner can encourage writers to further take their work and creativity to the next level, to innovate, and to play with better and newer ideas. No one won the prestigious award this year and it somehow connotes that the best work of fiction hasn’t been won yet and is for the taking, inspiring and motivating writers to create extraordinary art as anyone can be the next to bag the plum.


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