I love me some ruffled feathers. Especially literary ruffled feathers. For the first time since 1977, the good people of the Pulitzer prize decider committee have declined to award a prize in the fiction category. There were 3 nominees for 2011:
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
On the face of it, this lack of prize awarding is a big ol' smack on the face. Actually, under the face of it, I'd probably say the same thing, but to be clear, the way this usually ends up happening is that no one book gains a majority and so no award is given. There have been some incidents in the past of this happening- in fact, in the early part of the century, this seemed to happen with some frequency. Mostly it was because of the split vote, but it has also happened on occasion due to a sort of prize censorship.
In this year's case, my theory is that panelists were torn between 2 impulses: to honor and encourage a newbie with a lot of promise, or to honor and commemorate the posthumous work of a literary hero. I'm referring here to Swamplandia! and The Pale King, respectively... I'll leave Mr. Johnson out of the running, due solely to the fact that this the first time I've personally heard of his book mentioned in a prize forum.
I suspect that what happened was that since neither book was either author's best work, there was no clear winner between the judges' knee jerk instincts, hence the split vote. Both books had marked flaws that were noted by nearly all of their reviewers. Swamplandia! suffered from over large canvas and a messily concluded plot; The Pale King was not completed at the time of DFW's suicide. Had either work been a little bit better, I'm pretty sure we'd have a 2011 Fiction Pulitzer winner.
But the real question is this: how did these 3 books become the shortlist? Were there really not stronger books in 2011? If not, let's all hope that 2012 is better year for books.
For more commentary on this turn of events, see the good folks at Book Riot.
What do you think of the Pulitzer brouhaha?