The Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize (pronounced “pull it sir” according to their website) was established by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer in 1917. Pulitzer made a significant contribution to Columbia University to establish a journalism school as well as the Prize. The Prize awards achievements in journalism (newspaper and, beginning in 2008, online), arts and letters, and music  (there are 21 categories). The six categories in letter and drama are: fiction, drama, history, (auto)biography, poetry, and general non-fiction. The winner receives bragging rights (and a brief commercial boost for books) and a check for $10,000 (most likely not the clunky over-sized versions that lottery winners have to cart around for the benefit of the paparazzi).

The year-long process begins by having 102 judges that serve on 20 separate juries, each consisting of 5-7 members, that review more than 2,400 entries each year. Only those works that have been submitted with an entry fee ($50) and fit into one of the 21 categories is considered — no work is included automatically, despite its greatness in the pantheon of journalism or literature. The juries then make 3 nominations in each of the 21 categories for the Pulitzer board to review for recognition.

The Pulitzer board consists of 20 members from the newspaper industry (editors and executives) and six academics (5 from the Columbia University School of Journalism and the president of the school, although the president cannot vote). The board members read and review all the final candidates and then meet in early April to vote and announced about mid-April. According to the Pulitzer organization, “board discussions are animated and often hotly debated.” Once all the shouting and name-calling is done, awards are decided by a majority vote (or perhaps who is the biggest intellectual bully); however a board can also vote “no award.” “According to The Plan of Award” states their website, “if in any year all the competitors in any category shall fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board, the amount of such prize or prizes may be withheld.” Ouch.

And that is exactly what happened this year. The esteemed board was not impressed with the three finalists selected by the fiction jury. Finalists for 2012 were: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf); The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company). The last time the board voted for a “no award” in fiction was in 1977 when it dismissed the jury’s recommendation: A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean.

Needless to say, in an age when book publishing is fighting for its life, publishers were stunned by this decision. Publisher Jonathan Galassi of FSG was “shellshocked” and believed that this was a missed opportunity for the publishing industry. The Huffington Post, that was recognized this year, chimed in: “This year, nobody was good enough.” But the most vocal critic was the Fiction jury itself (Maureen Corrigan, Susan Larson, and Michael Cunningham). Corrigan, a book critic, did not sugar-coat the situation: “Honestly, I feel angry on behalf of three great American novels. I can safely say that anger and surprise/shock, and just sort of feeling this is an inexplicable decision on the part of the board — that really characterizes, I think, the way all three of us feel. The obvious answer is to let the jury pick. We’re the people who have gone through the 300 novels. All the board is asked to do is to read three top novels that we’ve given to them. In fact, what’s happened today is a lot of the articles and blog posts have gotten it wrong — they’ve been blaming the three of us!”

Fiction – No award
Drama – “Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes
History – “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” by the late Manning Marable (Viking)
Biography – “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” by John Lewis Gaddis (The Penguin Press)

Poetry – “Life on Mars” by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press)
General Nonfiction – “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton and Company)

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