2012: The Year With No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

April 16, 2012 | 5 books mentioned 20

A curious statement was made by this year’s Pulitzer Prize committee as, for the first time since A River Runs Through It failed to win in 1977, no award was given in the fiction category. Instead, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King will get to split the “tie” on their records. In the history of the Prize, there have only been nine other years without a fiction winner.

coverMeanwhile in the General Nonfiction category, Stephen Greenblatt‘s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern took home the top prize.

Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:



General Nonfiction:






Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.

works on special projects for The Millions. He lives in Baltimore and he frequents dive bars. His interests can be followed on his Tumblr, Nick Recommends and Twitter, @nemoran3.


  1. Disappointing. I enjoy the major book awards, and seeing who wins, especially if I have read the books and have a horse in the race. This makes me less interested in their award.

    So what does it mean that – “The three books were fully considered, but in the end, none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes (quote from latimes.com)?

    At first look it implied to me that the judges did not find any of the three worthy of the pulitizer and so they refused to pick a winner. However, on second look at the wording maybe each book had supporters who felt strongly for their choice and strongly enough against the other choices to refuse to compromise.

  2. If Swamplandia! is considered in the same breath as Train Dreams then who needs prizes anyway. What a joke.

  3. Agree completely with ZK. Seeing Swamplandia! there would not inspire confidence in the remaining selections. But the others were all worthy contenders and I could name three more. Odd.

  4. It’s obvious – Swamplandia! is too unpolished, The Pale King is literally unfiinished and Train Dreams is too slight (number of pages). The question is, why weren’t other, more qualified novels in the running?

  5. Why weren’t Art of Fielding or the Marriage Plot nominated? I mean, they weren’t that great, but better than Swamplandia! for sure…

  6. Train Dreams is a reprint from The Paris Review of nearly a decade ago; it is not a new piece of work published in the last 12 mos. The Pale King was incomplete and at its end cobbled together by DFW’s editors. I can’t speak to Russell’s book, other than the lack of interest in it which precludes me from doing so. Seems to me that either a) the committee is flat-out lazy and unwilling to truly investigate American lit (a marked turn from the BLP win by Paul Harding a couple of years ago); or b) they are very specifically saying that American fiction was woeful these past 12 mos., and undeserving of celebration. I find the latter hard to believe. I guess my issue is less with an award not being given because of lack of agreement or consensus (contests do this all the time, and it is no enormous thing at this point) than it is that the nominees are so undeserving (well, two of three IMO; again, no opinion of the Russell). But then I suppose awards in general are fairly arbitrary; just look at the awards given for film…

  7. I love Karen Russell–her first story collection was quirky and inspiring–but Swamplandia proved that she is still a young and unformed writer. All year I was surprised as it made several top ten lists, because in general I doubt that there can be an entire year when no truly noteworthy fiction is published.

  8. What Oy Vey said. Russell’s short stories are magnificent. The excerpt from “Swamplandia” that was published in The New Yorker was magnificent. The novel is one that I could not finish.

    Plenty of novels from 2011 are worthy of the prize. “Leaving the Atocha Station” comes to mind.

  9. This article in the NY Times seems to say that the process involves a very small jury of writers picking the finalists, which then go up to the larger Pulitzer committee for a vote.


    My guess is that the jury members all assumed DFW would win because it would be his last shot at a Pulitzer. I’m glad it didn’t win however, because while it is a shame he’s gone, the book feels very unfinished. I’m glad they took the time to put it together, because there are breathtakingly beautiful sections. As a whole I think it was lacking though.

    I loved Swamplandia! and didn’t find it uneven at all, but I can understand why they might not have given it to a debut novel or, for that matter, a reprint of a novella from 2002.

    Anyway, it seems the problem may have lain in the smaller jury sending up a batch of three unlikely contenders.

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