Pulitzer Prize problems: Fiction jurors speak out


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On Monday, when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced, the committee declined to choose a winner for fiction. It’s the 11th time in the prize’s history that has happened, but the last time was in 1977, so the lack of an award came as a shock.

Bestselling novelist and new independent bookstore owner Ann Patchett wrote in the New York Times, ‘As a novelist and the author of an eligible book, I do not love this. It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one. Still, it is infinitely more galling to me as a reader, because there were so many good books published this year.’


And the judges agree. The Pulitzer Prizes are selected in a two-tier system, in which judges recommend a selection of finalists to the board overseeing the prizes. The board then picks a winner -- or, as in the case of the 2012 fiction prize, picks none.

The three judges in fiction this year were Susan Larson, former books editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune; Maureen Corrigan, a Georgetown University professor and a book critic on the public-radio show ‘Fresh Air,’ and novelist Michael Cunningham, himself a former winner.

The three books they had sent to the board as finalists were ‘Train Dreams’ by Denis Johnson, ‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell, and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace.

While Cunningham has kept mum, Corrigan and Larson have spoken out.

Larson appeared on NPR, saying that she and the other judges were, ‘shocked ... angry ... and very disappointed.’

In Thursday’s Washington Post, Corrigan elaborated:

Like everyone else, we three jurors found out Monday that there would be no 2012 prize in fiction. That terrible news capped what was otherwise the greatest honor of my career as a book critic and professor of literature. ... We three members of the Pulitzer jury were not charged with selecting the lengthiest, or the hoariest, or the most polished works of American fiction. We were not told to stick to the middlebrow, nor did we egg each other on to aim for the edgy. Our directive was to nominate ‘distinguished’ works of fiction, published in book form in 2011 that, ideally, spoke to American themes. And 2011 saw a bounty of good novels. We unanimously agreed on our three nominees. In our collective judgment, these very different novels are three very distinguished works of fiction.


Corrigan suggested structural changes that might ameliorate the no-Pulitzer situation in the future.

Another idea would simply be to catch up with the recent books of fiction that have won in the last round of literary prizes, big and small: Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones,’ which won the National Book Award; the story collection ‘Binocular Vision’ by Edith Pearlman, the National Book Critics Circle Award (disclosure: I’m on the board); Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of An Ending,’ which won the Man Booker Prize; ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka, which won the PEN/Faulkner Prize; Steven Millhauser’s ‘We Others: New & Selected Stories,’ which won the Story Prize; ‘Please Look After Mom,’ which won the Man Asian Literary Prize; or Patrick DeWitt’s ‘The Sisters Brothers,’ which won the Morning News’ Tournament of Books.


2010: Pulitzer Prizes announced

No fiction award from Pulitzer Prize in 2012

2011: Jennifer Egan, Siddhartha Mukherjee and Kay Ryan win writing Pulitzer Prizes


-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image credit: Medal from, collage by Carolyn Kellogg