When the Pulitzer Prize winners are honored at Columbia University later this month, one category will be conspicuously absent. For only the 11th time in the prize’s 95-year history, its board did not award the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. One might attribute such inaction to a dismal year in fiction writing, but the ensuing uproar of disapproval suggests that this is an issue of perception and influence rather than literary crisis.
Like other awards such as the Nobel Prize and the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize is important because we regard it as an authoritative and discerning arbiter of excellence. Since it is also so widely aspired to, it does more than honor extraordinary cultural achievement. It provides a quantifiable boost in sales to the sort of work that otherwise might not get the attention it deserves in the marketplace.
Strong influence leads to significant expectations
With such influence come significant expectations, though, and this year’s lack of a fiction winner has left many disappointed. Literary professionals are particularly incensed, including the Pulitzer jurors who read hundreds of submissions only see the board decline to recognize the three books they selected. “We were all shocked,” juror Susan Larson told NPR. “The Pulitzer is too prestigious and crucial an award to book lovers, authors and the publishing industry to be sporadically — and unaccountably— withheld,” wrote another juror, Maureen Corrigan, in the Washington Post.
Struggling publishers and booksellers were also understandably upset. “I can’t imagine there was ever a year we were so in need of the excitement it creates in readers,” author and bookstore owner Ann Patchett lamented in the New York Times. Many readers, too, were left empty-handed. Entertainment Weekly‘s Stephan Lee described how his “mother, whose first language is not English, would always buy and spend a painstakingly long time to read and understand the Pulitzer-winning novel each year.”
Ambiguity leaves room for negative conclusions
This isn’t the first Pulitzer-less year in fiction, but the prize’s administrators should consider the fallout. If guaranteeing a prize every year would compromise its integrity, they could consider implementing a more transparent selection process. It’s unclear whether the board deemed all of this year’s fiction finalists unworthy or merely failed to reach the majority consensus required to select a winner. Such ambiguity leaves room for too many negative conclusions.
Corrigan offers some additional suggestions in her Washington Post piece, including eliminating that majority requirement and simply letting the jurors make the call. “We were invited to serve on the jury because we’re recognized as being, in some way, literary experts,” she said. “Why, then, turn the final decision over to a board primarily composed of non-literary folk?”
New York’s literary community may find some solace in Mayor Bloomberg’s recent announcement of the new NYC Literary Honors. The silver lining for the publishing industry is that sales of all three Pulitzer fiction finalists are up. And bookworms now have not one but three great options for their next read, though none will bear that esteemed Pulitzer Prize stamp.