Why the Absence of the Missing Pulitzer Really Doesn’t Matter
Let me just start by telling you that the Pulitzer judges’ failure to choose a 2012 prizewinner for fiction hasn’t killed reading for me yet. I don’t feel like a loser. I’m not all that disappointed. And — even though Ann Patchett might want to tell you I do — I don’t get really excited when the winner of the fiction prize is announced each year.
But before I get too far, I’d also like to congratulate Quiara Alegría Hudes, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Manning Marable, for history; John Lewis Gaddis, for biography; Tracy K. Smith, for poetry; Stephen Greenblatt (who I totally knew was going to win), for general non-fiction; and Kevin Puts, for music.
Marable’s biography of Malcolm X was considered by many to be seminal, and Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, was as engaging and, for me, inspiring, as it was solidly informative. And I read plenty of fiction last year that I found to be culturally relevant, philosophically urgent, and masterful — at least on par with anything going on anywhere else in the world of art. So, when Patchett wrote that readers like me, upon learning that there would be no prize awarded, would “just figure it was a bum year for fiction,” she was wrong about that, too. A statement like that is, in fact, complete bullshit. I’m insulted by it.
Not all of us look to the big literary prizes to be told what really matters in contemporary fiction, or to determine the quality of our own taste in prose. Sure, it can be really interesting to find out who wins each year and for what reason, as well as comparing the types of novels that have won the Pulitzer over the years. And, on some level, I guess — probably the one Patchett was referring to when she decided to puts words in the mouths of American readers — it can be fun to see if one of your favorite books wins, so you can feel validated in your literary choices and confident in the fact that you lived through a good year of national fiction. But, as readers, why should we really care so much?
And as for Patchett’s desperation regarding the state of American fiction, that she “can’t imagine there was ever a year we were so in need” of a Pulitzer winner, I’m also calling bullshit.
Fiction is, if you haven’t noticed, neck-deep in its transition into the digital culture that now runs the world. It terms of both dissemination (e-books in general, creative new publishing ideas for digital books, literary blogs and such) and thematic content (the unique tension we face as we come to grips with the new-found ubiquity of pretty much everything), the novel hasn’t been short on really exciting twists and turns over the past few years. It’s been great. Older masters like Don DeLillo and new talents like Teju Cole have found themselves equally struggling to represent pieces the world in which we live (because none of us can really know what to expect now, when information hits us before events even happen); and that’s been as valuable to the craft of fiction as anything else in its long tradition.
With that in mind, why would we really want to gripe about the fact that a relatively traditional mainstay of the American literary elite has faltered? Doesn’t it make sense?
When Patchett noted that, since its inception in 1917, the Pulitzer committee has declined to award the prize ten previous times, she didn’t mention that most of them were relatively tumultuous years for America (1917, 1941, 1964, and 1974 are part of that list). Regardless of whether or not sociopolitical tension was the deciding factor — or any factor — in the committee’s indecision at those times, it’s clear that stuff going on in the world tends to have an effect. To some degree, failure to choose a winner now might just be another way of expressing that tension after having bottled it up for decades. And doesn’t it just feel right to see the literary establishment short circuit as fiction’s transition into the digital age, the post-postmodern era, or whatever the hell this is, heads down the home stretch? It does to me. I don’t even think it’s that weird.
So, yes, there were some fantastic novels written last year. A few of them may live on in our perpetual study of literature for many more years. One or two might have said something about the world of 2011 that, a century from now, will ring truer than we can at this moment even imagine. None of them won the Pulitzer. And that shouldn’t matter to you.