A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction. It was the first time they had done so since 1977. The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book.
The three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide.
Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.”
When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle.
Ann Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.”
Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb.
I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view.
There was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC.
The difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them.
All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time.
A book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles.
Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)
Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table. Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much.
Historically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good).
However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides.
The next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy.
Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two… The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville.
Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.
The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”
This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it.
All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.