“A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.” Michael Cunningham, Author – The Hours
The pinnacle of success for an author is the Pulitzer Prize, the Oscar of literature. Last week the Pulitzer Prize winners for 2012 were announced, and for the first time since 1977 there was no Pulitzer prize awarded for fiction.
Here’s my point: I find it difficult to believe that in a world of artists—which I believe writers to be—who across this vast nation are innovating, expressing, experimenting and resonating with material that inspires me daily, that the Board could not honor an exemplary work, submitted as the best of the best, to receive the Pulitzer prize. I’m consistently blown away by stories I read in the multitude of online and print Literary Journals. I have been lucky enough to gather friends who write work that makes me gasp, cry, laugh aloud, question my experiential compass, re-evaluate my reasons for living. It’s that deep at least once a week!
Which segues into my resounding critique and downright censure of the notion of “The Academy,” “The Canon,” and those stuffy/academic posers holed up in a paneled room in an elite institution, who somehow determined that not one of today’s thriving, struggling authors in an impressive list of nominees suggested by an esteemed jury of authors who labored over 300 books in less than a year, was “worthy” of the title and prize. Phew. Review the demography of the Board and determine for yourself why this group declined the prize. Where are the artists among them? Where are the innovators and the pioneers? Only two authors and a playwright on the list, and all of a certain age range and yes, most appearing to be stereotypically haughty. Where is the sort of artist I've seen tugging her dreadlocks enthusiastically while reading from her latest collection, or the less facile but wholly invested one baring his soul in a writers’ group, or that recent MFA grad who wrote the ground-shaking novel from a troubled young woman’s perspective? By what scale was the Board determining the weight of our best writing?
The official explanation from the Board was rather terse, “’The three books [nominated] were fully considered, but in the end, none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded,’ said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, declining to go into further detail” (LA Times).
Michael Cunningham, one of the jurors and author of several extraordinary novels, posted a frustrated response in The New Yorker, noting that: “The members of the board can, if they’re unsatisfied with the three nominees, ask the jury for a fourth possibility. No such call was made.”
Cunningham explains that the jury “never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a prize onto. We agreed, by the end of all our reading and discussion, that contemporary American fiction is diverse, inventive, ambitious, and (maybe most important) still a lively, and therefore living, art form.”
He quotes from the opening page of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King a passage so transcendent it nearly knocked me off my chair—I actually held my breath while reading it:
“Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.”
In the case of David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, what a legacy it might have added to his already extraordinary contribution to literature to have received this honor. And I am left wondering why this Board may have asserted their austerity, rather than their generosity. Why they refused a nod to the here and now writers by selecting a winner. It feels like another semiotic symptom of national negativity, rejection of possibility, and dourness. It resonates of today’s Congress, so hyper-aware of the politics and perceived historical implications of any choice, that they remain bottlenecked on most significant issues. A stuck budget there, a withheld prize here. What does either achieve except a cultural (or socio-political) sinkhole?
In these times of palpable paradigm shifts on a multitude of existential planes, one ponders the result of withholding and rejecting. Does it seem difficult to imagine that all across the United States in one solid year of writers tap-tapping daily that there was nothing rendered worth honoring and mentioning? Only in this sort of “Academy” could they deny a winner in a metaphorical race that left spent and drenched runners, because no one was “fast enough.”
I can think of nothing in my life that demands as much of me as writing. Nothing I’ve done physically even comes close. The body does what it can and reaches a peak, but the brain never lets up. I ache over each word, character, narrative arc. I lay awake at night crafting sentences, many forgotten in the morning. I observe my world in the most hyper-aware manner mining for that elusive gem of an idea--often believing I've found a diamond, only to realize I'm actually holding coal.
To think of the finest practitioners of our craft bleeding their words, birthing their character-babies, and inventing yet another way to express or deconstruct love, loss, pain, ecstasy only to be judged as not worthy of even a single nod, is nihilistic to me.
I encourage you to read Michael Cunningham’s eloquent letter in The New Yorker. We can never guarantee how history will view our choices, but we nevertheless must--or at least should--make them. It seems cowardly to deny this award when extraordinary writing is happening, and furthermore, the writing EXCITES people—smart, engaged people! I suspect that these days there exists a sort that finds it more thrilling to plug the proverbial ear than listen to the song and appreciate it for what it offers rather than what is expected or demanded.
The lack of a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the year 2012 was a pessimistic gesture that is a sign of our times, and here on my humble blog I respond to the Board’s upheld palm and averted eyes with a certain, figurative finger.
My final thought is not my own. I steal it from someone with skills that dwarf my own, Michael Cunningham, who surmises that, “An American writer has been ill served and underestimated.” But here is where he gives it back to those of us who still find reading not only the purest great escape, but also the quintessential jumping off point: “Which is probably one of the reasons those of us who love contemporary fiction love it as we do. We’re alone with it. It arrives without references, without credentials we can trust. Givers of prizes (not to mention critics) do the best they can, but they may—they probably will—be scoffed at by their children’s children. We, the living readers, whether or not we’re members of juries, decide, all on our own, if we suspect ourselves to be in the presence of greatness.”