Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pulitzer Board Madness

Pulitzer Board Madness

Earlier this year in April, a furore justifiably erupted when the Pulitzer Board decided that not one of the three short listed fictional works (Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson) deserved the coveted literary prize. How a writing population of the magnitude of the United States cannot have a work deemed worthy enough is incredulous to me. The fact that a qualified jury read a myriad of novels and short story collections to announce a shortlist that they perceived as laudable, and that not one of these novels was judged strong enough by the board, appears not only bizarre, but also idiotic, supercilious, pretentious and out of touch (and my hyperbole here matches my mood).
In my opinion it’s simple: if novels are short listed then a prize should be duly awarded. It would be different if the jury announced that the three novels were highly commended but not worthy of the prize - but they didn’t, the three were finalists – not just commended works.
I have read some wonderful Pulitzer winners, including gems such as: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Stories of John CheeverThe Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway, all books that I can’t highly enough recommend (I’m also eager to read Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan and William Styron, among others on my reading shelves).
But there are a few Pulitzers that I did feel left wanting, just a few, not bad mind you, just not fabulous. Good rather than sublime. Without having read all three short-listed works this year, I am still a firm believer that works were worthy, after all the sole novel that I have read, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, fell into the sublime category – it wasn’t just ‘good’.
David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King would have been a posthumous prize. I've only read several pages of The Pale King, and, not being a botanist, I found the opening, with its excessive list of plants not to my own personal liking. That being said, Wallace's sheer ability is evident, while the narrative appears loose, his rhythm and command of language are something to behold. It is easy to see why Wallace has a cult following among 20 -30 year olds. I’m 36 and many of my friends, especially those in their late 20s, are devouring Wallace’s two tomes (Infinite Jest being the other celebrated novel).
           I haven't yet read the other short listed novella, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, but I have no doubt that the experienced jury, which included Michael Cunningham (a recipient himself in 1999 for The Hours), Maureen Corrigan, and Susan Larson, chose a work worthy of contention. 
         During the writing of this post, Phil English, a friend of mine, emailed me Michael Cunningham’s ‘LETTER FROM THE PULITZER FICTION JURY: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED THIS YEAR’ from The New Yorker. Michael Cunningham echoes my sentiment (or rather, I am echoing his); these two quotes from his letter suffice in telling all:

“We were, all three of us, shocked by the board’s decision”

       “We never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a    prize onto.”

Was Swamplandia! Pulitzer Prize material? As earlier indicated: without a doubt. And I’ll post a book review that explains why soon.
         The Board should have heeded the Jury. I wonder what dry observation Kiwi Bigtree from Karen Russell's novel would have regarding the decision? After all, the decision did not just 'border' on ridiculous, it was ridiculous in its entirety. 

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