Do Book Prizes Owe Us a Winner Every Year? A Deep Dive into the Pulitzer Prize Controversy of 2012

I’ve been reluctant to talk about recent Pulitzer Prize winners for Fiction as I work my way through my Pulitzer Prize Project. In a way, it’s easier to talk about books and authors from further in the past because their legacy has been established. That means that it’s also possible to re-examine their legacy. It feels like recent winners need a little distance from their publication date to more accurately see them.

I’ve been trying to decide how to begin discussing newer winners and had a breakthrough after Kiran Reader left a comment on one of my YouTube videos about the book Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. It occurred to me that this year marks the tenth anniversary of Train Dreams being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the infamous year in which no winner was selected. Why not use this anniversary to open the door to a conversation about what went down that year?

I haven’t fully decided if I’m strictly going to stick to a ten-year embargo on Pulitzer deep dives for recent winners, but right now it feels like a good practice. If I get fully caught up on my Pulitzer Project sometime soon (unlikely as it may be), I may be willing to start talking about recent winners. And in special circumstances, I would be willing to break an embargo–for example, Andrew Sean Greer is releasing a sequel to Less, which won the 2018 Pulitzer for Fiction, later this year. That might be an opportune time to break the seal on that title.

In the meantime, as I figure out a more specific guideline I can follow, let’s take a look at the infamous 2012 Pulitzer Prize announcement and, for the first time, talk about a year in which the Pulitzer Board decided not to award a Fiction Prize.

What Happened?

The literary world was scandalized on April 16, 2012, when the announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes revealed a very curious omission. Although three finalists were named for the fiction prize, no award was given for the first time since 1977 (a gap of 35 years).

Side note: what happened in 1977 is fascinating and will be explored in a future Pulitzer deep dive. Although Roots by Alex Haley is frequently (inaccurately) referred to as the winner that year, it was awarded a special citation and not an actual prize. It’s a long story that involves a plagiarism scandal, and we’ll eventually get into it.

It used to be fairly common for the Pulitzer Board to skip a year in awarding the fiction prize. In the 1970s alone, there were three years in which no prize was given (including the year with the Roots controversy). It was skipped once in the 1960s and 1920s and twice in the 1950s and 1940s. In fact, the very first year the Pulitzer Prizes were given out (1917) the fiction prize was omitted because the Board didn’t feel any of the submitted titles were worthy of the award. Perhaps if it had still been a common occurrence, no one would have really cared when they did it again almost a century later. But after 35 years of consistently figuring out a way to select a winner, it felt like a shocking decision. An entire generation of novels and novelists had come of age with the view that neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would keep the Pulitzer Board from announcing a winner.

Whatever the reason, they didn’t live up to that in 2012, and the entire publishing industry was shocked and incensed–and so was the literary world at large. The New York Times even invited eight literary experts to participate in what they called “The Great Pulitzer Do-Over,” asking the experts to name the book they deemed to be the best from 2011. Bookstores across the country released articles and op-eds calling out the Pulitzer Board for denying them a surefire sales tool to reach customers–and at a time when many were predicting the demise of brick and mortar bookstores in the face of the eBook revolution.

I’ve worked as a bookseller. I can personally vouch for the notion that a Pulitzer Prize can make a book instantly fit for handselling purposes. My best example of this is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I read that book immediately upon its release thanks to a New York Times Book Review rave, but found it virtually impossible to interest customers in its quirky story and protagonist. I tried and tried to put it in the hands of customers and most of the time, they just weren’t interested. But when The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it immediately jumped onto bestseller lists and Junot Díaz became the toast of the literary world (at least until he faced “Me Too” accusations).

Choosing not to award a prize when it had become something relied on by publishers, booksellers, and audiences for so long felt like a slap in the face and a rather clueless way of misreading the room (pun intended).

The Pulitzer as a Literary Award and its History of Not Selecting a Fiction Prize

There have been many reasons for the Board to decide not to select a winner in a given year, and we don’t always get a look at what went on behind the scenes to understand what happened. Other times, like when the Board famously decided not to give out a prize rather than see it go to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, perhaps we know a little too much. For better or worse, the Pulitzer Board prefers to be mysterious. This makes it a bit of an outlier in the modern era of book prizes. It prefers to keep its decision-making behind closed doors and it does not announce finalists in advance.

There’s an argument to be made here that the Pulitzer Prize is beholden to an antiquated process when most other major literary prizes have embraced the type of award rollout that favors a social media landscape, but when you get down to it, there’s no right or wrong way to administer a book prize. I for one find the Pulitzer’s old-school mystery process to be a little refreshing. But it can absolutely be frustrating, and 2012 is a perfect case in point for that.

Here’s another important thing to remember: the Pulitzer is already unlike most major literary awards because unlike them, it is not specifically a prize dedicated to literature. The Pulitzer Prize has 22 categories each year and only 5 specifically relate to books (with an additional two categories for drama and music, which may or may not have a book component). It is first and foremost an award for journalism. The only comparable major literary prize is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in addition to prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, and peace.

The primary reason the Pulitzer Prizes are structured the way they are is to make awarding this many prizes across so many different categories manageable. Other literary prizes have evolved in recent years to embrace fanfare from their audiences. Prizes like the Booker, the Women’s Prize, and the National Book Award announce a longlist to great fanfare before narrowing that down to a shortlist and, eventually, a winner. Members of the jury and nominated authors participate in interviews and events during the leadup to the winner announcement. Fans who follow along with the prizes get to react to each stage of the competition, speculate as to what will happen next, and publicly root for their favorite. Without this process, it’s difficult to have this same level of excitement for the Pulitzer Prize. As far as I know, the folks over at the PPrize site are the only crazies other than me trying to guess what will win the Pulitzer Prize each year.

Other book prizes are able to have these sustained rollouts because they have significantly less categories to manage. In fact, most prizes (like the Booker and the Women’s Prize) only have one category.

Like those prizes, the Pulitzer Board relies on a jury to work through all the potential finalists in each category. Unlike those prizes, the jury does not ultimately decide who will win the Pulitzer Prize. Instead, the jury submits their finalists to the Board, and the Board decides which one should win–or if no prize should be given at all. Conflicts between the jury and the Board over this process have been happening since the Pulitzer’s earliest years.

Central to that conflict is the notion of what makes a book worthy of the Pulitzer Prize and whether or not a prize should be given each year just because. This could be a fascinating conversation that would be unique to the Pulitzer Prize… if they were willing to have it in public.

Why Was This a Big Deal? And How Did it Happen?

If the Pulitzer Board had deigned to offer an explanation for why they decided not to award a prize for fiction despite the fact that they were presented with three finalists, it might very well not have fixed the situation, but it might have helped. Instead, the Board has remained stubbornly silent to this day. As such, we can only speculate as to what happened.

The majority of what we do know about what went down comes from the three jurors who presented the Board with those finalists. Most significantly, Michael Cunningham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999 for The Hours, wrote a two-part essay for The New Yorker about the process he and fellow judges Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson went through. These essays are a delight for Pulitzer fanatics like myself because they represent an extremely rare look behind the curtain at how a winner is selected. Unfortunately, the Board didn’t even communicate with the jury about whatever difficulties they had choosing a winner, so although we get a good look into the jury’s process, we get nothing of what happened after the jury sent their selections to the Board (other than that the jurors found out that there would be no winner at the same time and the same way the rest of us did).

I don’t want to get bogged down in the process, but since it comes into play here more than any other year, here’s how the Pulitzer works. A jury is selected to work through the books that are contenders, keeping in mind the Pulitzer’s mandate that the fiction prize should be awarded to a work “by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” According to Cunningham, this consisted of roughly 300 books that were sent to the jurors in increments of 30 at a time. Throughout the year, the jurors remained in communication to build a running list of books they considered to be contenders. At the end, they (sometimes painfully) cut this down to the three books they thought best represented the Pulitzer Prize and the literary output of 2011. These three titles were then submitted to the Board.

I’ve heard that the jury is allowed to rank the finalists or make a specific recommendation to the Board (which the Board may listen to or ignore), but according to Cunningham, he and the other jurors were not allowed to make a case for a specific title. There may have been a change in the rules about specific recommendations at some point because in the past, it has been a point of contention between the jury and the Board. The rules state that the Board may ask the jury to present a fourth option if they are unsatisfied with the finalists, but no such request was made.

Side note: I’ve also heard speculation that a Pulitzer jury can sometimes “stack the deck” in order to ensure that the book they want to win is selected by the Board. The theory is that the jury would put two ringers (either obscure titles or ones that could only be described as longshots) on the ballot so the majority of the Board’s votes would swing to the book the jury wanted to win. As far as I am aware, no juror has ever publicly admitted to doing this. It also seems unlikely to have been the case in 2012, when everything Cunningham describes about their process and the three finalists indicates that the jury was not thinking about gaming the system.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, no prize is given if a work fails to get a majority of votes from the 20-person Pulitzer Board. They list this as the reason that no award was given in 2012 but it’s unclear if this is a conclusion based on reporting or simply because that’s what the Pulitzer’s “Plan of Award” says will happen (also quoted on their FAQ page). They also refer to speculation that the finalists were “more unusual choices than in years past.” That would seem to point to the idea that the Board didn’t like the finalists they were provided with and were therefore not too keen to see any of them win anyway. This seems more likely, because being honest, it doesn’t seem that it would be too difficult for the Board to keep discussing the titles until they reached a consensus. What if the College of Cardinals went into Conclave to select a new Pope, then threw up their hands in indifference when the first vote did not yield a winner?

That’s a rather extreme example. It’s just to say that the reality of the situation is that the Board would only be deadlocked if the Board decided to remain deadlocked. It seems reasonable to assume that they would have selected a winner had they actually wanted to do so.

The fact that the Board was okay with allowing the deadlock to stand was ultimately proven to be a woefully out-of-touch way of thinking about how the modern prize system works. I can’t say that people weren’t outraged any of the other times a prize wasn’t given, but at least there was precedent on the Board’s side. They lost that claim to precedent when they managed to name a winner for 35 consecutive years.

Do Book Prizes Owe Us a Winner Every Year?

… All of which begs the question: do book prizes owe us a winner every year? Some people think they don’t. Author Lev Grossman wrote an essay for Time in which he defended the decision not to award a prize by making the case that not every year is going to yield a novel that deserves literary recognition. In a way, it’s a question that comes down to what you think the intent of a book prize is: does it simply aim to reward the best book in a given year, or is it creating a pantheon of literary classics year by year by year?

Rewarding the best book in a given year sounds easier than it actually is. Another reason I really like the articles Michael Cunningham wrote for The New Yorker is that he spends a good amount of time grappling with whether or not it’s possible to decipher the best book from a group, and how each of the three jurors approached the eligible books differently. Maureen Corrigan, as Cunningham described it, “did not by any means require a conventional story, conventionally told, but she wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed.” Susan Larson, meanwhile, wanted to fall in love with a book, and Cunningham himself demanded that a book rigorously excel in its use of language to do something daring. Each juror had very different criteria in how they approached their reading–approaches they had to reconcile in order to agree on finalists.

At the end of the day, calling something the best book in a given year is something of a farce. A single year may have multiple titles worthy of being called great or it may yield a bunch of good books that wouldn’t stand up to tried-and-true classics. Nevermind that there are multiple ways of defining what is great or why. As Cunningham put it: “Jury members aren’t just selecting their favorite books, they’re trying to stare down their personal biases, to let the books speak as themselves, and not as the books the jurors generally tend to prefer. You don’t like family sagas? Too bad, this is a great one, get over it. You think of science fiction as frivolous? Consider the possibility that this particular work of science fiction transcends what you’ve always believed to be the limits of the genre.”

Furthermore, the definition of greatness is ever evolving. The Great Gatsby, today acknowledged by many to be the foremost example of the elusive Great American Novel, was a commercial failure when it was published in 1925. Not only did it fail to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (which instead went to Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith), but reviews were largely mixed. Gatsby‘s reputation only turned around after it was included in an Armed Services edition to be widely distributed to troops to entertain them during WWII. Those troops liked The Great Gatsby, which started a swift reappraisal of the book and its worth.

It’s partly a question of what future generations will and will not overlook. What seem fatal flaws to one generation strike the next as displays of artistic courage. Who cares that Henry James went on sometimes at questionable length because he was being paid by the word? Who cares, for that matter, that Marconi merely invented radio transmission when his actual goal was to pick up the voices of the dead?

Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year” Part 2

Which is a perfect argument for why it is similarly difficult to approach a book prize as if it is affirming the literary canon in real time. What seems like a classic upon publication might not hold up for future generations–and a book we currently overlook may stand the test of time.

Unlike most other book awards, the Pulitzer has been obsessed with the notion of longtime literary merit since its inception. The Pulitzer Board is uniquely focused on maintaining literary street cred: if a book wins a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Board wants that to really mean something. While members of the Board are ever-changing (Cunningham mentions that Board members serve three-year terms), the mission statement has remained consistent for over a century: the Pulitzer Prize is trying to recognize literary classics in real time.

But as anyone who follows the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction can attest, they haven’t always met this criteria. And in my opinion, there was a book among the finalists for 2012 that would have been well worth rewarding.

Regardless, given the reaction to 2012’s failure to produce a winner, I think it’s safe to say that it won’t be happening again anytime soon… if ever.

The Finalists

Another thing I love about the articles from Cunningham is that he rather willingly confronts the flaws that he and the other jurors found with the three finalists they submitted to the Board. Most prize juries would never acknowledge that there could be flaws in the books they selected. He also alludes to some of the books that didn’t make the cut–and I will spend the rest of my life speculating as to which 2011 candidate he was referring to when he said “A ravishingly beautiful, original novel went down when one of us pointed out that, lovely as the book was, Toni Morrison had already told a version of that particular story, to similarly powerful effect, in a single chapter of ‘Beloved.'”

Perhaps the messiest finalist (as Cunningham describes it) was also the biggest underdog: Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia! Russell had previously published a story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and was only 30 years old when Swamplandia! was released. Here is how Cunningham describes it:

Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” was a first novel, and, like many first novels, it contained among its wonders certain narrative miscalculations—the occasional overreliance on endearingly quirky characters, certain scenes that should have been subtler. Was a Pulitzer a slightly excessive response to a fledgling effort?

However, it seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed. Other first novels, among them Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” have won the Pulitzer. One is not necessarily looking for perfection in a novel, or for the level of control that generally comes with more practice. One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which “Swamplandia!” possessed in abundance.

Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year” Part 2

I think that’s a pretty perfect summary of Swamplandia!, although I personally fell on the side of thinking it a touch too much. She has only published short story collections since then. I’ve only read one (Vampires in the Lemon Grove), and I had a similar experience. Some of her writing is staggering (a story about a massage therapist obsessed with a veteran’s tattoo comes to mind), but some of it feels somehow unformed despite its ambition.

Perhaps less messy than Russell’s contender but still representing a somewhat daring definition of ‘great’ was David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King. Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46, after years of struggling with depression. He left behind the manuscript for The Pale King, which he had been working on for over a decade. Wallace’s friend and editor Michael Pietsch compiled the manuscript into the novel that was published. As the novel’s Wikipedia page puts it, “Each chapter stands almost alone, with text ranging from straight dialogues between coworkers about civics or cartography to snippets of the 1985 Illinois tax code to poignant sensory or character sketches.”

Here are Cunningham’s thoughts on The Pale King, which he previously described as the first book sent to him for consideration that grabbed his attention:

“The Pale King” was, of course, unfinished, but so are a number of great works of art. We have only fragments of Sappho’s poetry. Chaucer was a little more than halfway through “The Canterbury Tales” when he died. And, of course, there’s Haydn’s unfinished string quartet, and all those magnificent sculptures by Michelangelo, only half emerged from their blocks of marble.

It seemed, too, that a Pulitzer for “The Pale King” would be, by implication, an acknowledgement not only of Wallace but also of Michael Pietsch, the editor. As a novelist, I well know how much difference an editor can make—and there’s no major prize given to editors. The best an editor can hope for is mention on the acknowledgments page, when, sometimes, that editor has literally rescued the book.

Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year” Part 2

I agree that editor’s get short shrift when it comes to book prizes, but I’m unconvinced of the logic here. Admittedly, I have never read a book by David Foster Wallace despite the fact that he helped inspire the name of my blog and YouTube channel, and I only am very hesitant to do so. Why? Because I’m not sure I want to read hundred of pages of dialogue about “civics or cartography to snippets of the 1985 Illinois tax code.”

You can guess, then, that the last finalist is the one I consider to be the real deal: Denis Johnson’s precise novella Train Dreams. The Wikipedia summary for this book captures it pretty perfectly: “The novella details the life of Robert Grainier, an American railroad laborer, who lives a life of hermitage until he marries and has a daughter, only to lose both wife and child in a forest fire, and sink into isolation again.” At only 116 pages, it is the definition of a spare, elegant, economical piece of writing–a “short sharp shock” as one BookTuber frequently says.

Cunningham speaks the least about this book when discussing the finalists, but he also speaks of it the most reverently.

Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” had been written ten years earlier and been published as a long short story in The Paris Review. It was, however, magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and—in its exhilarating, magical depiction of ordinary life in the much romanticized Wild West—a profoundly American book.

Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year” Part 2

Not for nothing, that is a pretty perfect encapsulation of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’s mandate. It is honestly shocking to me that they didn’t gravitate to this book among the finalists.

After consulting with the Pulitzer administrator for that year, it was determined that Train Dreams was eligible for the prize because it had been published as a novel for the first time during the qualifying time period. This is not without precedent either: story collections by authors like John Cheever and Jean Stafford, which consisted of works previously published but put together for the first time, have a longstanding tradition of being honored with a Pulitzer Prize (or at least they did back when it was more common for story collections to win this award).

Other Books Released That Year

There aren’t a wealth of other titles to consider from 2011 (the year in which a book had to be published to be considered for the 2012 prize), but there are some notable options.

The literary sensation of 2011 was Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which won the Women’s Prize. I made it halfway through this book before deciding to DNF. It wouldn’t be a contender for me (if I may be blunt).

Close behind Obreht as a literary sensation in 2011 was another debut novel: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a sprawling novel about baseball, college, Americana, Herman Melville, and the intersection between skill, opportunity, and performance. It has a lot of fascinating things to say but to me, also has some pretty deep flaws.

Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Teju Cole’s Open City, and Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic could each make a compelling case for a Pulitzer, but none would make my shortlist. The Buddha in the Attic, a novella about Japanese picture brides immigrating to the United States, would come closest.

I haven’t read Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints but it has been on my to-read list since it was named one of The New York Times‘ top ten books of the year. I can’t speak to its merit without having read it, but it is described as a coming of age novel with an aura of punk nostalgia set during the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. That grabs my attention so hard.

Previous Pulitzer winner Jeffrey Eugenides earned a lot of acclaim for The Marriage Plot, but I am not a fan of that book.

The big contender overlooked by the Pulitzer jury, to me, was Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Ward did win the National Book Award for Fiction for this book, which may be why it was left off the jury’s shortlist. Or maybe it’s the book Cunningham alluded to when he said Toni Morrison had told the story better in a single chapter of Beloved. To me, however, the powerful story about race, poverty, family, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (told in a style that deliberately plays with Greek myth) deserved a spot as a finalist.

Snapshot: 2011

I know it wasn’t all that long ago, but let’s look back at a time that seems so much simpler now to see what the overall landscape of this year was. Curious why we’re looking at 2011 instead of 2012? Because the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded the year after the eligibility period, which means if a book had won in 2012, it would have been released in 2011.

In bookstores: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was the bestselling book of the year, buoyed by the film successful film adaptation and its all-star cast. The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Tomas Tranströmer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” As mentioned already, Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for Fiction for Salvage the Bones and Téa Obreht won the Women’s Prize for The Tiger’s Wife.

In movies: The Artist was released and began its march to a Best Picture win at the 2012 Academy Awards. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was the top-grossing movie of the year.

On TV: American Idol was the top-rated show of the year (after the Super Bowl, of course). Modern Family won its second of five Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series while Mad Men took home its fourth and final Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. And Oprah Winfrey aired the final episode of her talk show, which had run for 25 years.

In music: Arcade Fire surprised many by winning Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, but Adele ruled the charts with the top-selling album (21) and the top-selling song of the year (“Rolling in the Deep”).

In the news: In March, an earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami and set off the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl when three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant went into meltdown. In April, nearly 23 million Americans watched Prince William’s wedding. In May, Osama bin Laden was killed during a top-secret raid in Pakistan.

What Should Have Won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (if Anything)?

I only have two books that I would have named as finalists: Train Dreams and Salvage the Bones. You could persuade me to add Open City or The Buddha in the Attic to round out a final three, but they wouldn’t have come close to winning for me.

Perhaps the most staggering, infuriating thing about this whole situation is that Train Dreams was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, perfectly fit the mandate for the prize, and deserved to win. It was literally right there. And the Board declined to recognize it. And unfortunately, Denis Johnson passed away in 2017, so there will not be another chance to recognize him.

It’s a shame. Justice for Train Dreams.

Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives

Gone With the Wind (1937)  Lonesome Dove (1986) Beloved (1988)

Deep Dives On Pulitzer Years With No Winner

1917 2012

2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Finalists
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