About That Pulitzer Fiction Jury
The literary world went ballistic last April when the Pulitzer people announced there would be no winner in the fiction category this year. That hadn't happened in 35 years.
The jurors, who had forwarded the names of three finalists to the 20-member Pulitzer board, went public with their anger and bewilderment.
Public sympathy clearly lied with the jury, while the board was mercifully mocked for supposing that there were no books published in 2011 worthy of their prissy prize.
Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler would only say that "It's unusual for the fiction award to be a problem, but it was a problem this year."
Now we know what the problem was.
At least that's my reading of the "tell-all" written by jurist Michael Cunningham for The New Yorker.
While Cunningham's piece is meant to gain sympathy for the jury by describing their painstaking methods and awesome intentions, it does quite the opposite for me.
"I was, as it happened, the first of us to read The Pale King, and well before I'd finished it I found myself calling [the other two jurists; yes, there are only three] Maureen and Susan and saying, 'The first paragraph of the Wallace book is more powerful than any entire book we've read so far.'
"Consider its opening line:
Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb's-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all head gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek.
First, I don't know what "flannel plains" are. Plains that look like, um, flannel? Like, from above?
I'm not sure that's an entirely original description, nor a particularly new insight.
"Blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust"? It sounds nice, the way the words in "A Whiter Shade of Pale (no pun intended) do, but what is it?
But I'm sure what really captured Cunningham's enthusiasm was author David Foster Wallace's list of vegetation and such that simmer on the shrilly fields. And it's a fine list. Well-chosen, well-paced. But a bit trite. Lists like that are old as the hills by now - not only in literature but in popular song.
It's hardly "powerful" and, besides, does a mother's hand on a soft cheek nod? I'd say it cups and caresses. Maybe it assures. It most assuredly does not nod.
Nonetheless, The Pale King was made a finalist - despite the fact that it was unfinished at the time of Wallace's suicide and stitched together in the end by his editor. In the least, it would have to be a joint award, though the jury didn't say so.
"Maureen was drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story. She did not by any means require a conventional story, conventionally told, but she wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed."
No! Nothing has to happen! Why put such constrictions on such a grand exercise? You might as well put Stewie on the jury.
"Denis Johnson's Train Dreams had been written ten years earlier and been published as a long short story in The Paris Review. It was, however, magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and - in its exhilarating, magical depiction of ordinary life in the much romanticized Wild West - a profoundly American book.
"It contains lines like:
All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he'd ever witnessed waking - the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utter still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.
Really, Cunningham? I'm not a big fan of weather reports and painted postcards.
Worse, "Train Dreams had only been published as a novel in 2012, which made it eligible, for the first time, for a Pulitzer. We checked with the Pulitzer administrator about that. He gave us the O.K."
And so it was named a finalist.
Completing the triumvirate was another problematic selection.
"Karen Russell's Swamplandia! was a first novel, and, like many first novels, it contained among its wonders certain narrative miscalculations - the occasional overreliance on endearingly quirky characters, certain scenes that should have been subtler. Was a Pulitzer a slightly excessive response to a fledgling effort?"
"One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which Swamplandia! possessed in abundance. For instance, this memory of the narrator's mother:
Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered - our island was thirty-odd miles from the mainland - and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother's body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.
Nights in the swamp were dark - just like most everywhere else! But swamp nights were also "star-lepered." In other words, you could see a lot of stars in the sky from there, right? Or was the sky diseased with stars? Who knows!
So the jury sent to the board an unfinished book completed by its editor; a 12-year-old story; and a promising debut novel star-lepered with flaws. Is it any wonder the board took a pass?
Now, sometimes a board overrules a jury in any case and makes its own selection. But in the fiction book category? Without a board that had read the 300-plus books that the jury did, it would be impossible to fairly name a winner.
So it turns out that, in the end, the jury failed, not the board. And we now know that thanks to a juror who still doesn't understand why.
Note: Cunningham writes that his post is the first of two parts; the second is supposed to go up today. I'll be watching and update this post as necessary.
Posted on July 10, 2012
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