What goes on during a deliberation is a private matter for the jurors alone; the rest of us are privy only to the verdict. That holds true for book awards as well as murder cases. So when the Pulitzer Prize Board announced on Monday that there were three finalists for the fiction prize and no winner, we were left to draw our own conclusions. So far I've been able to come up with two: either the board was unable to reach a consensus, or at the end of the day the board members decided that none of the finalists, and none of the other books that were not finalists, were worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.
What I am sure of is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They'll just figure it was a bum year for fiction. 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. I put Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories at the top of that list, and so did many others. My other favorite was Denis Johnson's Train Dreams which did make it onto the Pulitzer Prize shortlist. I don't think there is a sentence in that book that isn't perfectly made, and its deeply American story fits with the Pulitzer's criteria. And while no one has ever won for two consecutive books, couldn't this have been the year? I have no doubt that Jeffrey Eugenides would have won for The Marriage Plot if he hadn't already won for Middlesex.
So while it's true that the Pulitzer committee has, since its inception in 1917, declined to award the prize on 10 previous occasions, I can't imagine there was ever a year we were so in need of the excitement it creates in readers. The winners are written up in papers and talked about on the radio and television. This, in turn, gives the buzz that is so often lacking in our industry - Did you hear about that book?
With book coverage in the media split evenly between Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games wouldn't it have been something to have people talking about The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's posthumous masterwork about a toiling tax collector (a Pulitzer finalist this year)? Wallace is not going to have another shot at a win, which makes the fact that no one could make up their minds as to whether or not he deserved it all the more heartbreaking.
Let me underscore the obvious here: Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps. Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.