Thursday, April 26, 2012

No Pulitzer?

So, apparently there will be no Pulitzer prize awarded for fiction this year. Which I find sad, but not for the typical reasons.

I don't really care much about awards in the sense of awards as some definitive thing, as tablets handed down from on high. We have a ridiculously competitive culture obsessed with ranking things, often pointlessly. Books are not in competition. This is not reality television. Books are discrete things, and if they are connected, it is not as rivals but as pieces in a larger conversation, a vast, sporadic, and endless (so I hope) communication between people and cultures. And the thought that three people can sit down, read a couple hundred books, and somehow decide the best book written in an entire year is rather ludicrous when you think about it.

And I find some of the arguments for the Pulitzer a little wayward, too. It's been suggested that everyone will think that no good books were written this year if the award isn't handed out, which seems logically preposterous. Maybe people who never read books will read the news about the Pulitzer and think that there must be no good books, but if they don't read books what does it really matter anyway? It's like being really concerned about what people who don't eat Cheez Whiz will think if they stop making Cheez Whiz. People who actually read books will probably (remarkably!) find a way to actually think and feel things about the books they've read. And if there are people who only read one book a year and who depend on the Pulitzer prize to tell them what to read, well, I can live with their loss. Maybe they can read this year's National Book Award winner. Or, for that matter, Jincy Willet's National Book Award Winner.

And, yeah, it would be annoying for the Jury, who read the books and selected the finalists. I'm sure they probably want to kick a chair (or chairperson) or two. Especially when the "no award" decision was given because no book had a "majority." I mean, if one book had more votes, go with that. Why would a majority be necessary? They're not deciding power in Parliament here. It's a book award. Haven't they ever heard of a tiebreaker? The "no decision" strikes me as weirdly self-important. Just pick a book. Rock, paper, scissors has always worked for me.

The reason I care at all is simply because I like talking about books, and book awards and book lists increase book talk. They're conversation starters in which the word "Kardashian" rarely appears. And lots of stupid things will be said, most likely, but so will some interesting things. But instead of book talk, this year we get one more discussion about the state of the industry, full of hand wringing and whinging. All while people are actually, you know, still reading books.

I'd be curious to talk about books. I have Karen Russell's Swamplandia, which is one of the finalists. I haven't read it yet, but I will. Judging by her last name, it will be brilliant. I don't have Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, but his Tree of Smoke is high on my TBR list. I'd be happy to hear some conversation about him. I have read David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, which is full of snippets of genius but seems like a grossly flawed novel (perhaps because he didn't write and organize all of it), and I say this as someone who was hugely influenced by Infinite Jest. It probably shouldn't have won the award (if handed out), but people won't really talk about that one way or the other.

Instead we have more muttered doomsaying. But maybe the way to fix publishing is to talk less about the industry and more about books. If only we could pick a winner.


Steve Abernathy said...

I liked all the outrage expressed by "book people" about the lack of a prize. Outrage cracks me up.

Ted Cross said...

I pay no attention to such awards. They don't even consider any of the books that I consider 'best'. They would have held up their noses at the very idea of someone like Tolkien competing, yet I'd read his books ANY day over any of the ones they do consider.

R.S. Bohn said...

I'd like to talk more about books. It seems we used to do that, or maybe I'm just recalling the unending book talk with my friends, but lately it's been all about publishing, about "the industry."

Quotes make it seem oddly nefarious. :)

But yes, like you, I enjoy awards and lists not for their supposed definitive opinions, but for the conversation that ensues.

On a semi-unrelated topic, last year (or maybe 2010's?) National Book Award winner, Jaimy Gordon's "Lord of Misrule," was one I'd love to talk about, but for a major award winner, I know no one else who's read it. Bummer.

D.G. Hudson said...

Why not start a discussion here, Bryan?

Discussing books is something writers love to do. We have to keep up on industry happenings, sure, but are we forgetting the fun part?

I'd love to talk about books. I'm tired of missives on high re - 'What Thee must do to succeed.' (other than selling your soul)

Matthew MacNish said...

Hey now, there was no award in 1977, and that was a good year.

I've only read one Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It was pretty good.

Leila said...

Haha I found out about the Pulitzer prize issue through you. My immediate reaction was: so? But then I read your thoughts on it, and I can see what you mean. It's very self-important and unfair.

However, I kind of agree with the concept to a certain level. Personally, if you gave me 10 books to read for one year and you asked me which one would I say is a classic, I wouldn't just choose the best book out of 10. I would simply say, "They were all good, some better than others, but I haven't found one that I would consider timeless." It isn't to say that I know what it takes for literary immortality, but each individual in this world has an inkling for what constitutes as profound. If none of those 10 books affected me in such a way, then I can't give you a candidate for classic.

M.A. Leslie said...

I have to agree with Ted on this one. The form letters you get from agents, the "industry", and most of you in your blogs have told me that books are objective. How can any small group decide which book was the best book?

What if we were to start a group of the people posting on this blog, read books this year, vote, pick a book, and give it an award. Would that be important?

From our collective point of view, it would be the best book of the year. Right?

I guess, in too many words, as usual, I am saying I don't give a damn what they say. I like the books I like and I personally select my favorites as the year goes on. There were great books last year, there will be great books this year, and no matter what happens in the future to the "industry" - books and anything else written down will last forever.