Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Nobody likes a winner

Posted By on 04.18.12 at 01:02 PM

Any prizewinners here?
  • Peter Dutton
  • Any prizewinners here?
In the New York Times yesterday author Ann Patchett, now also a bookstore owner in Nashville, inveighed against the failure of the Pulitzer judges to choose a fiction winner this year. Some publishers and booksellers chimed in, too—they say the Pulitzer’s good for business, good for fiction, a balm to the self-image of a struggling industry. (“The fate of an entire industry seems to hang on the fate of every book, and the feeling is perfectly understandable,” the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier said.) Patchett sees two possible reasons for the nondecision: either the judges just didn’t like any of the books well enough, or they weren’t able to come to a consensus about which should be the winner.

I don’t see what the big deal is, and I didn’t even go to, like, Montessori school or something. There’s something touching about the thought that the judges weren’t able to decide on a single best book—it bespeaks, maybe, three exceptionally good finalists, and judges whose feelings were too strong to yield. Two contenders were Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!; the other was David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which was put together by Wallace’s editor following DFW’s death in 2008. What if the judges were deadlocked? That would be awesome.

On the other hand maybe the Pulitzer board—which had been forwarded the three finalists by a jury that comprised Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan, and Susan Larson—thought the books were lousy. The Times's Julie Bosman also speculates that the entries may have been too unorthodox—Wallace's having been assembled posthumously, Johnson's having first been published as a novella in the Paris Review in 2002.

Back to Ann Patchett. She's distraught as a reader, a writer, and a bookseller. She acknowledges that the Pulitzer board has declined to recognize a fiction winner before, but writes, "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 sometimes, at least on PBS stations, they make it onto television. This in turn gives the buzz that is so often lacking in our industry — Did you hear about that book?" She compares the Pulitzers to the Academy Awards, noting that the purpose of the latter is not so much to award the "best" movie, but to create hype for the industry.

Furthermore, re: the book buzz: “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 (and this year’s third Pulitzer finalist)?”

There's a whole high/low culture argument to be made here, but it's lunchtime, and moreover I'm trying not to admit that I've read The Hunger Games (only the first book!) but not The Pale King. The other half of Patchett's point here—aside from the question of whether books like The Hunger Games are worthy of the sort of buzz they receive—is whether all that attention eclipsed what might have been paid to a more worthy literary product, like The Pale King. I take the point, sort of, but did I miss the part where everybody doesn’t talk about David Foster Wallace all the time? There couldn't possibly have been more “book coverage in the media” of The Pale King. And of higher quality: has anybody written anything half as lovely about either of the two books Patchett mentions as, say, this essay on DFW by John Jeremiah Sullivan?

OK, OK. So Laura Miller reviewed The Hunger Games in the New Yorker, in an essay on dystopic young-adult fiction. Which is to say that she treated it as at least semiserious fiction—a series whose cultural impact should be reckoned with. This either does or should constitute the sort of buzz that Patchett's lamenting—a solid-if-not-amazing work of fiction that's been the object of both widespread reading and serious criticism. So what's the problem?

Other book news: check out the gorgeous new Los Angeles Review of Books website.

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