After giving no award for fiction, the Pulitzer Prize Board should reconsider its selection process
"The Pulitzer is for the birds - for the pullets. It's just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates." So wrote Saul Bellow, in his novel "Humboldt's Gift," which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That was in 1976 - then, in 1977, no winner was awarded in fiction; then 25 years of winners until Monday, when the 20-person board which chooses among three finalists decided to give no prize whatsoever, none, not to a single novel out of the eligible 341. If it's any consolation, there were no losers, either.
There are 21 categories of the Pulitzer Prize, an expansion of the original 13 envisioned by Joseph Pulitzer. It's with him that the self-celebration began, as anyone who creates an award in his own name gives more credit to himself than the others who win it. Begun by a newsman in the age of yellow journalism, the Pulitzer has inspired gossip and hype for nearly a century. "You become a walking Pulitzer ad," Bellow writes, "so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are 'Pulitzer prizewinner passes.'"
And, here are more column inches to take up the putzy prize. Well, "if you hate it so much why don't you divorce yourself from it" - or this is just more fuel to the flame, they say. The point is that the Pulitzer is picked by a faulty means of juries and judges, and everyone deserves a fair trial. It's not rigged - that would be too orchestrated. It's haphazard and convoluted and someone should uncover it, then win the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting.
In each category, juries of specialists pick three finalists after perusing the field of applicants. These finalists, known as "nominees" in the lingo, proceed to a board of 20 judges. This board is the Pulitzer Prize Board, and its members serve terms of three years, years during which they run the show of prizes.
Each year, the board has its options. With a majority vote, it can choose a winner from the finalists. With a three-fourths vote, it can demote a finalist and pick anew from the pool, or, with three-fourths, it can move a finalist laterally from one category to another. Such was the case this year when "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention" moved from biography to the history category. The book is supposedly very good, and also, supposedly, a biography. Overstepping the three history finalists, it won the prize in that category. Since no new finalist was appointed in biography, it came down to two works: one on the anticommunist George Kennan, and another on Marx's wife, Jenny. Not since "Forrest Gump" has there been a Jenny so out of league with an American - "George F. Kennan: An American Life" went on to win the contest.
Some problems in the process have presented themselves. Not only does a board of non-specialists make the final call, unilaterally, for prizes in specialized categories. But it can also overturn the recommendations from juries, and make last-minute winners out of finalists out-of-context, taking people or works nominated for one category and awarding them in another. While it does have the option of selecting new finalists, given the time allotted and hundreds of applicants to choose from, this soon becomes a less feasible option.
Oh, and the board can also vote that no award be given, which is what it did for fiction.
How disrespectful - not only to the authors - including the late David Foster Wallace, whose posthumous work was overlooked by critics just as his others, now considered classics, were - but also to the juries which selected them.
Why this verdict was reached is unknown, but Ann Patchett in The New York Times speculates, "either the board was unable to reach a consensus, or at the end of the day the board members decided that none of the finalists, and none of the other books that were not finalists, were worthy of a Pulitzer Prize."
What's left of the literary world has bemoaned this move as withholding attention from the authors and books which deserve it. Some publishers are upset, because the yearly ceremony can bring money and attention to winners. The ambivalence the rest of us feel about the result is best captured in an essay by Wallace. He was writing on the Oscars, but the point stands, a standing quote:
"We pretty much all tune in, despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on its pretense that it's still an art form ... the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks."
To close, the Pulitzer Prize Board should explain its no-comment on fiction. It should also look to change its policies on awarding prizes. The rest of us, however, should know that an unclaimed prize is worth, literally, nothing and a claimed prize hardly more. Going a year without a prize we can handle - only in a year without fiction has something been robbed of us.
Aaron Eisen is the Executive Editor of The Cavalier Daily. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at email@example.com.