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Was No Award Deserved for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?

April 16, 2012

For the first time in this century, “No Award” was given in the Fiction category of the Pulitzer Prize, as winners in other categories were announced today.

The Jury for Fiction was comprised of the following people:

Susan Larson, former book editor, The Times-Picayune and, host, “The Reading Life”, WWNO-FM (Chair)
Maureen Corrigan, critic in residence, Georgetown University and, book critic, “Fresh Air,” NPR
Michael Cunningham, novelist [and 1999 Pulizter Fiction winner for his novel The Hours, which beat out Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver] New York, NY
Nominated as finalists in this category were:
Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a novella about a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm;
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf), an adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years; and
The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company), a posthumously completed novel, animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.
  • Johnson’s work was a re-issue of what first appeared in the Paris Review in 2002 to later win the 2003 O. Henry Prize, a “favorite” of two of the three jurors for that prize that year.
  • Russell’s work was longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize just last month.
  • Wallace’s work was actually unfinished, found in 2008 by the author’s wife and by his literary agent, after the author committed suicide; he had been working on the manuscript for more than a decade it seems, and his friend and editor compiled it in a publishable form one year ago.   It was one of Salon’s “Best Fiction of 2011” winners.
The last time there was “No Award” was in 1977.
So we ask and read the answer:
Why in some years was there no award given in a particular category?

According to The Plan of Award “If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board, the amount of such prize or prizes may be withheld.”


So we ask about this year.  Do you think Larson, Corrigan, and Cunningham were just being too picky?  Or do you think that whoever selected the nominees just didn’t look hard enough for previously unrecognized and/ or excellent works of fiction?  Couldn’t the jury have decided to go with a work other than those nominated, as the Jury in 1984 did?  What would you have nominated?  Whose fiction would you have nominated or awarded the 2012 Pulitzer to if you had been on the jury or the board?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Cassie permalink
    April 16, 2012 7:41 pm

    Thank you for sharing all the factual details of the decision. I really like that you quoted the standards set by the Pulitzer committee and the expectations that the books chosen had to be of a certain par. I haven’t read these books, but I do wonder if they reached that bar. My problem is that they’re all attached to names that are already popular in contemporary fiction. Did they get chosen based on name, or by actual fictional merit. I just wonder…

    I wrote about this on my blog today too 🙂

  2. April 16, 2012 11:28 pm

    Kurk, I think there is a bit of confusion here — but media reports (and, indeed, your own text above) indicates that the board made the decision to not award the prize, not the jurors. See, for example, the footnote-postscript to this Entertainment Weekly article:

    (Please be forgiving of me for quoting Entertainment Weekly, but I’m awfully busy this week, and it was the first reference that came up on Google.)

    The jury’s job is to nominate three finalists and give a recommendation for the winner; but the board actually selects the winner.

    Similarly, your recap of the 1984 story is not quite right — according to the link you give, the decision was reversed not by the jury but by the board, and Ironweed was in fact one of the three finalists (which is what I think you mean by “nominated work.”)


    Now, onto my next point — the problem with the Pulitzer Fiction prize award is that the awardees are awfully uneven. Look at these lists:

    For example, a decision to give Wallace’s Pale King the award would have been problematic. The Pale King is a bit of a mess, since Wallace never completed it — and it was put together by an editor. The thing is that almost everyone agrees that it is not Wallace’s best work — but Wallace never won the Pulitzer for his best work.

    Look at the people who never won a Pulitzer (Fiction and Novels categories): Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Carson McCullers, Richard Wright, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, and James Baldwin.

    Isaac Bashevis Singer won a Nobel Prize for literature — but he never won a Pulitzer. (Even though Singer rewrote most of his English books — they are different from his Yiddish versions!)

    Saul Bellow only won the Pulitzer after he was already in the pipeline for his Nobel prize (they arrived the same year).

    Genre fiction is largely unrepresented — there are no awards for Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Cain.

    Philip Roth won a Pulitzer, but for one of his weakest novels: American Pastoral, and Sinclair Lewis won it not for Main Street but for Arrowsmith!

    Meanwhile, look at some of the winners: James Michener. Margaret Mitchell. And a whole lot of writers that I do not recognize (although I considerable myself fairly well read.)

    Who else could have been nominated this year? Well, if we are talking about popular fiction, I think 11/22/63 was perhaps Stephen King’s best book ever — and I suspect he is in the top five most popular living American authors (if not number one). Ann Waldman’s The Submission was outstanding. Chad Harbach’s The Fielding deserved consideration. And while I don’t think it was the best book of the year, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was better than some of the previous Pulitzer prizewinners (including being better than Cunningham’s The Hours.)

    (I did not read Johnson’s Train Dreams.)

    So, I think the process failed this year.

  3. April 17, 2012 10:05 am


    Thank you for asking whether the three works nominated as finalists in the fiction category were “chosen based on [the author’s] name, or by actual fictional merit”? I see at your blog post you do, correctly, declare: “All of the people up for Pulitzer’s this year had made a name in contemporary fiction.” Are you suggesting that Kate Walbert’s 2001 novel was overlooked? I do see that it’s developed from her Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Award winning short story, “The Gardens of Kyoto.”

  4. April 17, 2012 10:08 am


    Well, I wasn’t very clear, was I? But neither is the Publizer Prize web site. Yes, Larson, Corrigan, and Cunningham were the Nominating Jury. But:

    It is left up to the Nominating Juries and The Pulitzer Prize Board to determine exactly what makes a work “distinguished.”


    The Board presided over the judging process that resulted in the 2012 winners and finalists.


    While the journalism process goes forward, shipments of books totaling some 1,000 titles are being sent to five letters juries for their judging in these categories:

    • For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.

    (I didn’t even image to look at the Entertainment Weekly “footnote-postscript” until you quoted and linked to it. And rather than just linking to the NYT 1984 article, I should have made clear that the board ignored the jury’s recommendation.)


    You bring up a number of good examples of how problematic the choices can be. I’ll only comment on Sinclair Lewis, who was awarded and accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, the first American to be awarded such. Erik Axel Karlfeldt, who presented the award, started by saying:

    This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is a native of a part of America which for a long time has had Swedish contacts. He was born at Sauk Centre, a place of about two or three thousand inhabitants in the great cornland of Minnesota. He describes the place in his novel Main Street (1920), though there it is called Gopher Prairie.

    And Karlfelt a few moments later added:

    Yes, Sinclair Lewis is an American. He writes the new language – American – as one of the representatives of 120,000,000 souls.

    Karfelt mentioned not just Main Street but also Babbit, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. Lewis accepted the award just fine.

    But Lewis did not accept the Pulitzer Prize four years earlier in 1926 when it was awarded to Arrowsmith. He was bitter toward the Pulizter committee, it seems, when they overlooked his nominated Main Street in 1921 and his Babbit in 1923. He wrote to his father:

    I see that just as Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence beat Main Street for the Pulitzer prize, so did Cather’s One of Ours beat Babbitt. I’m quite sure I never shall get the Pulitzer.

    Supposedly, he told somebody else that he would have accepted the Pulitzer for either of those two novels. And yet, in turning down the award when given for Arrowsmith, he rather publicly hid his rejection behind principal:

    I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

    All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

    Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.

  5. April 17, 2012 3:29 pm

    This NPR news piece claims that the jurors were shocked that the board did not award the prize this year:

  6. April 17, 2012 4:03 pm

    Thanks for that. I love this silver-lining quotation:

    The one bright spot, in Larson’s mind, is that perhaps fiction fans will now be encouraged to “read three books instead of one.”

    If Larson, Corrigan, and Cunningham really read “300 books” between them for this assignment, I wonder which others were in their top 30. If they themselves published that list, or even just their top 10, then think how many more books fiction fans might read.

  7. April 17, 2012 4:53 pm

    It seems Susan Larson is on a bit of a crusade in the media:

    Yesterday, NPR reported:

    “The decision not to award the prize this year rests solely with the Pulitzer board,” she wrote in an email to AP.

    Joe Gross of the Austin American Statesman gives this:

    UPDATE: Susan Larson contacted me with this clarification: “I was the chair of the Pulitzer fiction jury this year, serving with Maureen Corrigan and Michael Cunningham. We nominated three fine American novels as finalists for the prize — The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace; Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell; and Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, all of which we considered Pulitzer-worthy. I have served in this capacity before — it is not the role of the jury to select the winner, but rather to submit three unranked finalists to the board. The decision not to award the prize this year rests solely with the Pulitzer board.”

    The Huffington Post reports this:

    UPDATE: Susan Larson, the chair of the jury, told The Huffington Post by email: “The jury members were all shocked and disappointed and angry at the news, of course. We thought so highly of these three books, we took our responsibilities very seriously, and our decision was unanimous.”

    And it appears that the board members who will speak up have stayed calm; USA Today gives the following specifics:

    After reading 341 books, they nominated three titles to the 18 voting members of the Pulitzer board, which “could not determine a winner,” says Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler, who sits on the board. Its members include prominent journalists such as TheNew York Times’ Thomas Friedman. Its only fiction writer is novelist Junot Diaz.

    “None of the three books could get a majority of votes,” Gissler says.

  8. April 17, 2012 9:32 pm

    Even more details here:

    Forgive my brevity — but I hope to rejoin the discussion next week.

  9. April 18, 2012 9:45 am

    I sympathize with the book publishers.

    The jury is sloughing off responsibility for “No Award” on the board (i.e., “The decision not to award the prize this year rests solely with the Pulitzer board,” she wrote in an email to AP.). And the board and its administrator are blaming the democratic set up (i.e., “None of the three books could get a majority of votes,” Gissler says.)


    The question really has to be whether, after reading 341 books, The Pulitzer Prize Jury nominated three “competitors in [the fiction] category [that actually did] fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board.”

    A published “standard of excellence fixed” for this Pulitzer Prize seems to be “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

    I like Sarah McNally’s would-be nominations for the Pulitzer fiction Prize of 2012. And to meet the Board standard, as a book the majority might also vote as best, I like Mat Johnson’s novel, Pym.

  10. April 18, 2012 6:22 pm

    Have you read Pym? I have not.

    In fact, I have not even read Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (although I see it is sitting in the contents of my Library of America edition of Poe — what can I say — I have only read Poe’s short stories and poems.)

    If you post some thoughts on Pym sometime (which, from the blurb, looks quite interesting), I would certainly appreciate it.

  11. April 19, 2012 5:41 pm

    Johnson’s Pym starts in by borrowing the “Preface” of Poe’s Narrative, at least the first exact lines verbatim until the former deviates into other, more subtle acknowledgements of the latter. I’ve read Poe’s novel because some critics say Moby Dick owes much to it and because of the high praise Borges allegedly gave it and the critical view Toni Morrison has given it. I doubt Poe’s work would have won a Pulitzer, and of course it was published long before the Prize. I just started reading Johnson’s work, and it seems very good. If I were to blog on the one novel, I’m sure we’d have a few more things to say about the other. (You’ve been saying you are short on time these days for blogging; I’m afraid, I’m now going to have to be rather sporadic now in blogging due to busy-ness elsewhere. Wish I had time to read well and to comment on Craig’s two interesting posts today.)

  12. Timothy N. Thomas permalink
    April 19, 2012 11:15 pm

    I was one of the 341..the infamous 341 authors who entered the contest. I feel like a loser not because I lost, but because of the wet blanket thrown over the whole lot of us. None of us where worthy.. It will most likey be a very long time until there is no award given in this category, so we are now refered to as the ‘infamous 341’ The story I wrote was entitled ‘Galsboro a butlers letter to the New Yorker’….I guess it sucked more than any of my friends thought, now it is infamous……………………


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