The 2012 Pulitzer

I think it would be wise to begin with a brief overview of the process by which a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is awarded. The general outline of the process is consistent, though the specific details of the process vary each year. The Pulitzer Board, which consists of 18 distinguished professionals in the fields of literature, journalism and music, appoints three judges to sit on each jury (at one point, there were five judges on each jury, but that proved to be too many). There are 21 juries who judge their respective material and collaboratively elect three nominees. The board then determines the ultimate winners in each category. The only guidelines set forth by the board each year are that the book must be written by an American, be published in the last calendar year and should preferably reflect American life in some way.

These vague guidelines leave quite a bit of room for variance. As the jury members change from year to year, so do the inherent biases that each jury carries. By having a network of multiple professionals review over 300 submissions, the board attempts to block against these biases, and the jury members do seem to call one another out if they feel one is leaning too hard on personal preference. But still, those reading lenses are hard to shed, even under pressure of the responsibility to name a great American work without bias. Of course, the other changing facet of this process is the submissions. Some years include obvious, quickly identified gems such as The Great Gatsby, while other years’ juries mull over sparse novels, searching for something to grip.

This year, the jury for the fiction prize consisted of Susan Larson, former book editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Maureen Corrigan, a professor of English at Georgetown as well as the book critic on NPR’s program, “Fresh Air” and finally, established novelist Michael Cunningham. The judges agreed upon some simple criteria before they began reading: do not search for an obscure author over a work of genius by a known one, and do not favor perfect novellas over slightly flawed, massive novels. With these guidelines in mind, the three judges set forth on their expedition to find the books most worthy of the Pulitzer.

The three judges searched tirelessly through over 300 submissions for what Cunningham described as “the One.” He wrote in an explanatory article published in The New Yorker, “The One would be the novel so monumental, so original and vast and funny and tragic, so clearly important, that only an idiot would deny it the Pulitzer Prize.” But the One never came. The judges scoured the stacks for it, but it did not show.

And yet, eventually, Larson, Corrigan and Cunningham all agreed on three nominees about which they each felt strongly positive: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. It was undoubtedly trying to reach even this stage, but the most trying task each year is left to the board: choosing the one winner. In 2012, for the first time since 1977, the board could not complete this daunting task, or did not want to. The board did not select a winner. Most regard this as an unfortunate decision. Why deny an author profound recognition? Why deny American readers what is effectively a strong book recommendation? It is difficult to see the board’s decision as much less than a cop-out, and yet, the majority of eigh18teen qualified board members agreed that this decision was the right one, that it held merit.

After reading all three of the finalist novels, I can better appreciate the board’s decision to make the year of 2012 a prize-less one. They were faced with a difficult and ultimately painful decision, if for no other reason than that they were required to compare three completely different accomplishments on the same scale. Still, it is clear to me that I would vote for Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and here’s why:

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, is rich with dull but beautiful, achingly American passages. The novella is about a railroad worker, Robert Grainier, who loses his wife and child in a forest fire. One can presume that his family died in the fire, and as he attempts to mourn the loss of his family while moving on, he experiences a changing America clouded by his own grief. The novella has a deep, rural, American tone that reminds me of Stegner and Steinbeck. If the board took the guideline that the prize should go to a novel that reflects American life quite seriously, I’m relatively certain they would choose this one. But it isn’t genius. I don’t think it would ever be anyone’s favorite book. I would not choose this one.

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, is a stunning work of brilliance, steeped in the natural and painful monotony of life without being boring. In interesting and endearing ways, it conveys some of the most dull or painful messages about life. But it was published posthumously after the author passed away in 2008. Much of it was tweaked by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch. And it’s difficult to separate The Pale King’s radiant, circumstantial glow from its merit to be a Pulitzer Prize winner. Because I believe that adorning The Pale King with a shiny prize would be almost a waste and because I believe that a Pulitzer would somehow cheapen the accomplishment of this novel being published, which speaks for itself, I would pass over this nomination.

But Swamplandia! is a completely realistic choice for the prize, in my opinion. It is youthful but powerful, deeply tragic but funny. It is a quirky novel that within only a few pages enables the reader to feel as if she completely understands the vastly different life these characters live. It is the kind of book that can speak to a wide audience, from avid classics readers to those who occasionally indulge in a page-turner, when the mood strikes them. It is about a young girl named Ava Bigtree whose family owns hundreds of miles of swampland off the coast of Florida. Their home is a theme park of sorts, which many tourists visit during their Florida vacations. But when they lose their central attraction, Ava’s mom, to cancer, the difficulty of keeping their lives afloat becomes instantly realer and scarier. Ava, her older sister Osceola, her older brother Kiwi and her father Chief, alternate between banding together and breaking apart as they navigate the slippery course before them.

Russell is a strikingly good writer. The book is full of quotably beautiful or funny lines. But she is also well-trained and disciplined as a novelist. Despite her youth, both in years and as a writer, the flaws one finds in Swamplandia! are ultimately insignificant in the scope of enjoying the novel. Only afterwards does a particularly critical reader realize that she relies too heavily on quirks and does not lend enough attention to relatable, human personalities that inevitably exist within each of these characters, though she does acknowledge those shades. One might also critique her for overly flowery language in some passages or overly sparse language in others. But there can be no doubt that Russell’s strengths vastly outweigh her flaws.

What I cannot get over is Russell’s stunning ability to be funny and charming while being serious and weighty. She unflinchingly weds these two tones and creates a new one entirely: a tone of soft-spoken importance that does not take itself too seriously. For instance, in describing a bear the Bigtree family adopted, named Judy Garland and taught to dance to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Russell writes that park guests were scared of the bear when it performed its trick. “‘This bear is having a seizure!’ the park guests would cry –the bear had bad rhythm–but we had to keep her, said the chief. The bear was family.” At the same time that Russell conveys the significance of family and tradition to the Bigtree family, at the same time that she strongly sells the Chief’s patriarchal, authoritative position and at the same time that she demonstrates the complete outsider-ness of the tourists who visit the swamp, she mocks the frightened guests and has the reader laughing. We get all of this from a couple lines of text.

My choice for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction of 2012 would be Swamplandia!, but I confess that I can clearly understand the board’s reluctance to choose one of these nominees. The most compelling problem in choosing one, to me, is that comparing these works is similar to comparing The Great Gatsby, Sound and the Fury, and Catcher in the Rye. They’re each classics, they each have their own strong merits, and yet, choosing one over the others seems trite because they are so different. Perhaps the board did the reading world a favor by refusing to choose one of the nominees because American readers may now be more inclined to read all three.



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