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russell smith: on culture

Much scorn has been heaped on the board of the Pulitzer Prizes for deciding not to give out an award for fiction this year.

The board had been given a short list of three American novels to choose from: the posthumously published The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and Swamplandia!, a first novel by Karen Russell. This list had been chosen by a three-person jury, composed, as usual, of a novelist, a media critic and an academic.

The final winners in every Pulitzer category are selected by the board, which is made up of 20 people, usually a mix of professors from Columbia University (the institution that administers the prizes) and professional newspaper people. There are 21 Pulitzer categories, most of them in journalism, so it is largely reporters, newspaper executives and journalism professors who choose the winner of the fiction prize. This has always been the case.

This year, the board could not reach a consensus on the best book of the nominated three, and decided not to award a prize at all. It is not the first time the board has declined to give a fiction prize, but the last time was 35 years ago.

The publishing community and the literary media were dismayed, sometimes even outraged, even though it still isn't clear why exactly a quorum could not be attained. Was it a simple lack of majority and a system that does not allow for negotiation or repeated voting? Or was there some emotional intransigence on the part of some displeased board members?

Mockery of the supposedly Philistinic news people who rejected three exemplars of contemporary American literary sophistication began right away.

The New Yorker published a mock "memo exchange" among members of the Pulitzer board that makes them out to be illiterate adolescents ("These things are like a HUNDRED pages long," whines one.) Novelist Ann Patchett wrote angrily in The New York Times that the decision gave the public the wrong message about the quality of recent fiction. And the jurors themselves expressed bitterness about the failure of the board.

There is a widespread belief among literary bloggers that the Pulitzer board members were reluctant to give out a fiction prize because they simply didn't get any of the quirky books.

There is no justification for these personal smears. I am not at all sure why everyone is so upset in the first place. If the absence of a crowned king insults the literary endeavour somehow, then why have we been complaining for the past 10 years about the emphasis on prize winners and how it does a disservice to all the other brilliant writers out there? How exactly do the literary or publishing communities of the United States benefit from there being one and only one Pulitzer Prize winner declared? Wouldn't it be generally fairer and more beneficial to the reading public to crown three or even five best books of the year?

The Canadian equivalent is the Giller Prize, the source of much grumbling from authors who don't win it, which means almost all authors.

The common complaints against the media hysteria over prize winners are: (1) It simplifies the literary landscape, sending a large and heterogeneous reading public to one single book as representative of all literary production that year; (2) all the other books that come out that year are deemed by booksellers and the general public to be inferior, regardless of what ecstatic reviews they may have received or what artistic ground they broke; (3) the winners are chosen by the flawed process of jury compromise, in which the book that most jurors picked as their second or third choice tends to win; (4) juries are human and politicized and have agendas just like anyone else; and (5) the prizes or lack of them have such a huge impact on sales that publishers direct all their efforts to winning them, which means selecting prize-worthy books to publish rather than the ones they like best.

Even more annoying to the literary community is the hoopla around the CBC's Canada Reads, which selects random people to make random books famous. It's like choosing the book of the year by lottery.

With all these significant objections to winner-take-all prize-giving, one wonders why the Pulitzer board hasn't been applauded. Now, three books will be studied and debated and bought, not just one.