As a country, we've become increasingly familiar with the impasse, the stalemate, the deadlock--first the US government debacle last summer, the Maryland state legislature, and now, the standoff that prevented a prestigious fiction award from being given. In-action is the new action.
In the rapidly changing book publishing industry, all manner of publishers are locked in a steel cage match with Amazon.com as they try to wrest back margin from the nation's largest online retailer to shrinking bottom lines. It's not likely to end well for publishers, bookstores and ultimately, writers.
The industry endured another setback the week of April 18th when the Pulitzer board announced that it could not reach a decision to award the eagerly await fiction prize. It has happened before—most recently in 1977 and six times since 1948.
A city rich in literary tradition, Baltimore serves as the muse for a number of excellent writers who have opinions on the subject.
"I have administered prize competitions and when the candidates aren't up to par, it's in the prize's best interests to not name a winner," said writer Gregg Wilhelm, Founder and Executive Director of the CityLit Project in Baltimore. "But in this case, there were three finalists, all accomplished authors.
“I find it hard to conclude that none of these or any other fiction published in the last year was worthy of the Pulitzer or able to muster a majority vote."
The three finalists included The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (often mentioned when the nation’s best novelists are discussed), and Swamplandia by 29-year old Karen Russell.
Speculation is that some viewed The Pale King as a series of notes, Train Dreams as too short and published once before in the Paris Review, and Russell too young. Fiction is taking on new and interesting forms these days, as exemplified by Rae Bryant's story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals.
"I will not let it go without saying that there are a hundred times as many good books published in the U.S every year as needed to fill all the prize lists there are," said Madison Smartt Bell, Professor of English at Goucher College and author of thirteen novels and two short story collections.
"A big prize can bring a lot of attention and sales to the lucky winner (ideally somebody who wouldn't get those things without the prize), so in that sense it seems a shame not to award a prize that would be of significant help to one writer and book."
Mark Saunders became a first-time author this month. His novel, Ministers of Fire from the Swallow Press imprint of Ohio University Press is a well-wrought international thriller. It took Saunders 10 years to write.
If it makes the cut into the 2013 pool of potential Pulitzer titles and becomes one of three finalists—and then a committee again withholds the prize because the board may dismiss it as genre—the process will have demeaned all involved: the writer, the editor, the book designer, and the publishing house.
Why is a panel of non-literary types entrusted to make this decision?
“The Pulitzer is too prestigious and crucial an award to book lovers, authors and the publishing industry to be sporadically—and unaccountably—withheld,” wrote juror Maureen Corrigan in The Washington Post.
Corrigan would improve the process by allowing the jurors to select a winner, or by removing the requirement that the board—composed of 18 non-literary types—reach a majority vote.
I agree. The final decision should be made by a jury of writers and book reviewers and not a board. Otherwise, the varsity is handing off the decision to the JV.
There have been many great books awarded the Pulitzer over the years but there have also been duds. Readable in a day, The Road is Cormac McCarthy-lite compared to the genius and skill of Blood Meridian.
"I don't know anything about how the Pulitzer Prize works—no idea who nominates, who decides, or how it's decided," said Jessica Anya Blau, Pushcart Prize winner and author of The Summer of Naked Swimming Parties and Drinking Closer to Home.
"I do know that I felt slightly ill when it was announced that no fiction winner was chosen. I wanted to run out and buy the three books that were chosen as finalists. I wanted everyone to run out and buy the three books. There was a way in which it seemed that the three finalists were snubbed and I wanted to undo that."
Smartt Bell is on the same page.
"What usually happens once a prize is awarded is that the non-winning finalists disappear. If in this case, all three books get the attention that the prize-winning one would have, that might be a good thing," said Bell. "We'll see."