Upturned Noses: A Rant on the Pulitzer Debacle

The news earlier this week that no Pulitzer would be awarded in the category of fiction came as a shock to me, as it did to much of the rest of the country. Although I have to admit that I’ve veered off course this past year to study the writing of the Dalai Lama, fiction will always be my great literary love. The first writing I can remember doing was in the form of the short story — likely something tragic, as 12-year-old girls are wont to write. As a lover of fiction, and especially as a writer, I can imagine the great dismay of the two living authors who were selected as finalists for this year’s prize. David Foster Wallace, I feel sure, rolled his eyes too, wherever his spirit may be. This is about as close as the book world comes to Kanye rushing the stage during Taylor Swift’s Grammy acceptance speech.

One of the Pulitzer judges, Georgetown University professor Maureen Corrigan, defended the jury in a piece for the Washington Post entitled “Pulitzer’s no decision on fiction prize exposes flaw in process.” In the article, she explains that the jury read over 300 works of fiction over a six month period of time, narrowing their selections down to three volumes. Those three finalists were then sent to the Oz-esque panel, which should have chosen the final awardee. It was at the point that the jurors handed over their selections that something went wrong. The Pulitzer panel, it seems, wasn’t satisfied with any of the choices offered. Instead of asking for more options — which I guess isn’t in the rule book — they chose not to give an award. Why? To save the $10,000 they would otherwise give to a deserving author? To prove that the literary world has such high standards? What statement is this making other than this one:

<< That’s snobbery.

Anyway, rant over. All this has made me think about the non-Dalai Lama books that I read and loved this year. Although I definitely didn’t read 300 works, I did read a few new releases, and I’ve narrowed it down to three — two works of fiction, one work of non-fiction. I won’t post synopses here, since you can find those on Amazon. Instead, I’ll explain why I love each.

(Image: Notes from Josephine)




The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

Part of my attraction to the Marriage Plot stems from seeing Mr. Eugenides read from the novel when he was here in Portland. He was so thoughtful and generous in answering the audience’s (sometimes overly drawn out) questions that I couldn’t help but find those same qualities in the book’s characters. Part of what makes The Marriage Plot such a strong piece of fiction is the complicated, confusing, frustrating inner lives of the characters. At times, I felt inclined to jump ahead so I wouldn’t have to watch the characters make the mistakes they do. It’s not just about a quarter life crisis, but about love, and how the definition of love grows and changes as you do. It’s about mental illness, both from the perspective of the ill and those who love them. As someone who once dated a person with severe depression and social anxiety, I can attest to the very realness of Claire’s thoughts and actions. The Marriage Plot felt, to me, completely honest.

The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta

This isn’t a book about The Rapture. Actually, that’s what’s so confusing to the characters — it wasn’t just Christians, or the pious, who disappeared without so much as a puff of smoke one day. The mysteriousness of that event itself would be enough to write about, but Mr. Perotta isn’t really that interested in going the sci-fi or religious route with this book. Instead, he looks closely at the ways that the baffling event affects a single family. It made me think about the way that we always expect change to be gradual, but that our worlds can be turned upside down within a matter of seconds. Maybe more importantly, who we think we are can change with just one event. Even though I read The Leftovers months ago, I still think about these themes all the time.

Blue Nights, Joan Didion

I read The Year of Magical Thinking on a train ride I took by myself between New York and Boston, and I think there was something to being in transition that made the book even more impactful. In the summer of 2009, I went to see a one-woman performance of the book in Cape Ann, on a whim, also solo. Maybe those experiences are the reason why that book and the follow up, Blue Nights, make me feel like  Joan Didion knows something about me, even though she will never know that I even exist. During a devastating period of two  years, she lost her husband, John Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana Roo. Blue Nights isn’t about grief so much as it’s about motherhood — what it means as an outsider, and how that changes, sometimes long after becoming a parent. Both books have been powerful in sketching out emotions and relationships that I, in my mid- and late-twenties, have just begun to understand.

Listen to a wonderful interview Terry Gross did with Joan Didion on Fresh Air. 

The gorgeous T at the beginning of the post is courtesy of The Daily Dropcap


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  1. First, thanks for the book recommends. I don’t have time to search out great reads, so thanks for doing the work for me.

    Second, I love Terry Gross. Isn’t she brilliant at doing interviews?

    • I hope you like the books, Janae! You’ll have to let me know what you think. In particular, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are so precious to me.

      And yes, Terry Gross is amazing! She’s so natural, and she always has such fantastic questions. Sometimes I’m totally uninterested in the topic, but five minutes in I’m totally hooked.

  2. Lovely, Joy! I’ve been trying to work out exactly how I feel about this lack of a fiction award. I mean, the implication is that the works didn’t live up to Pulitzer standards, and thus weren’t deserving of an award. Which is crazy, isn’t it, because as you pointed out the committee screened SO many novels. Ann Patchett did a great article on this earlier in the week as well: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/18/opinion/and-the-winner-of-the-pulitzer-isnt.html. But yes, it’s complete snobbery and utterly ridiculous. I read somewhere they may break up the prize money among all three finalists, which to me, seems petty and trite at this point. Anyway, the whole ordeal makes me feel like the committee was trying to make it about them and not about the novels all of which would have been very deserving. Okay so to steal a line from Patchett “It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one.” And whew. Now my rant is over as well 🙂

  3. Ann Patchett is so dead on with that quote — “galling” is just the perfect word. I just don’t find it believable that there wasn’t a book worthy enough of the Pulitzer this past year. So many amazing, talented writers, and not one was deemed excellent? Hmmm…I think not. This really gives me mixed feelings about the prize, which I never expected to feel.

    On another note, thank you for being my book loving bestie. 🙂 I would otherwise not have read two of those three books. xx

  4. And had it not been for you, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with Anne Lamott nor would I own an amazing copy of Interpreter of Maladies, which broke my heart in the best way. Bird by Bird was just recently purchased, by the way 🙂

  5. I have always felt that marriage/love isn’t just about finding that one true love, the one that makes you giddy in the first couple years that you r together…cuz let’s face it, time changes everything…we grow older and wiser, we change as individuals…and also as partners. So I feel like I could relate a lot to “the marriage plot.” That’s an interesting read…hopefully i can find time to read it someday =) Great picks!

  6. Especially given the way that the publishing industry is changing, it’s key for cultural institutions to acknowledge the importance of literature. I’m very disappointed with the Pulitzer Prize committee for making this decision.

  7. I think we have very similar tastes in literature! I just finished The Marriage Plot (which I was really excited about since I loved Middlesex) and thought it was a great story! Blue Nights is on my reading list (The Year of Magical Thinking was one of my favorites!), and I am excited to hear that you think it was another powerful read 🙂 Can’t wait to read it! And I agree that that’s really crazy about the Pulitzer Debacle, I can’t believe that! I’m sure the finalists were so upset. Snobbery…. blech!

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