The Pulitzer that never was

In its 95-year history the Pulitzer has declined to name a winner 62 times

On April 16, the Pulitzer prize board declined to hand out a fiction prize for the first time since 1977. There was no specific word on why, leading most observers to ponder the two logical possibilities: either deadlock or the prize givers thought their choices weren’t up to much. Readers at large will probably assume the latter, even though some very questionable books regularly win major literary awards. The possibilities before the board were David Foster Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams—a just plain weird short list, come to think of it, given the eligibility of such novels as Russell Banks’s Lost Memory of Skin and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides—and one that may well have given pause to the voters involved.

In the end it was process more than anything that sunk 2012’s fiction award. The prestigious American prize has 21 categories, two-thirds of them journalistic and the rest for achievements in the arts. Juries in the various categories, from editorial cartoons to drama, do the hard slog of determining nominees. This year former books editor Susan Larson, critic Maureen Corrigan and novelist Michael Cunningham ploughed through an astounding 314 submissions. (In Canada, literary jury members frequently seek—and receive—sympathy for reading less than half that.) Juries thereupon punt their shortlists to the group actually charged with picking the winner: the 20-person Pulitzer board. They are, unsurprisingly, mostly journalists, media executives or academics specializing in journalism. This year, only one—Junot Diaz, who won the 2008 fiction Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—is primarily a novelist.

To win any Pulitzer, a nominee has to receive the support of a majority of the board, and although its procedures remain opaque—how many votes do they conduct?—sometimes no majority is obtained. In fact, in its 95-year history the Pulitzer has declined to name a winner 62 times across all categories. Among the journalistic genres, boards have shown themselves most inclined to snub editorial writing—10 times in total, including this year. Fiction, though, has been ignored 11 times in all.

Part of the reason may be the vagaries of any given short list, part a certain lack of literary enthusiasm or certainty on the part of people professionally interested in journalism, but in practical terms it stems from the fact the Board is not emotionally invested in the short lists.

It’s not a situation that’s ever likely to arise in Canada. Here the same juries that painstakingly craft the short lists also return to close order combat in small rooms to pick the winner. A temporary deadlock—the infamous Giller tie of 2000 between Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards was made possible only by Jack Rabinovitch’s remarkable and not-to-be-repeated generosity—is always possible, but wholesale rejection is inconceivable.

This year’s Pulitzer omission is far more newsworthy than 1977’s because of the precarious state of the book trade. As Ann Patchett put it in the New York Times, it’s bad enough for her as a novelist to lose to no one at all, but positively enraging for her as a bookseller to have no buzz around a particular title, given the ever increasing importance of prizes to the literary star-making machinery. Not to mention the lucky authors’ bottom lines: a Pulitzer prize is worth $10,000—peanuts by major Canadian prize standards—but the sales boost is worth a lot more.

So the deadlocked or unenthusiastic Pulitzer board has, presumably without intending to, raised some intriguing questions by its non-action. Since most readers will assume none of the year’s novels were worthy, has the Pulitzer prize actually boosted its prestige as a marker of quality? And how will the publishers of snubbed shortlisted titles respond? The prize sales boost has always extended, in muted form, to nominees other than the winner, but who will put “Pulitzer nominee” on a cover in a year when many will conclude everything on the short list was mediocre at best?