I’ve been seeing some surprise—in the corners of the internet that care about these kinds of things—in response to today’s news that no Pulitzer Prize for fiction will be awarded this year. But this shouldn’t be a shock.
The last time this happened was 1977, when the jury chose Norman Mailer’s A River Runs Through It and the Pulitzer board rejected the selection, deciding no prize was better than allowing Mailer to win. Mailer’s personal repugnance is probably to blame here. More helpful is 1974, the second-to-last time no prize was given. That year, the jury unanimously decided on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, but the board vetoed it and gave no prize.
Perhaps this was because of the novel’s offensiveness—it does, after all, feature a scene where a man eats his own shit—but more likely, the board balked because of the more common complaint against Gravity’s Rainbow: its difficulty. (Or, as one contemporary reviewer put it, the novel’s “bone-crushing density.”) Looking at the board’s selections, it tends away from experimental fiction and toward safer “realism.” (Not “realism” in the nineteenth-century sense, but in the Carverian sense—the sort of paint-by-numbers story you’d find in the New Yorker or most MFA programs. These works are the “literary novel” as a kind of genre fiction.)
2012 seems to bear this out: the three finalists were Karen Russell, Denis Johnson, and David Foster Wallace. Johnson is the prototypical MFA writer; better than anyone except maybe Carver, Johnson’s early collection Jesus’ Son embodies the MFA genre: portentous minimalism in which nothing really happens and no serious version of life is shown. Russell is younger, but of the same mold, different perhaps only in the fact that she sprinkles the formula with precocious—and, for me, unbearable—cuteness.
Wallace, of course, is the great experimentalist. His nominated book, The Pale King, is a slightly more conservative than his most radical work, formally speaking, but it still has that heavy Pynchon influence. And, like Pynchon, it deals with important questions: What kind of world do we live in? Can it really be as dehumanizing as it seems? Is there a dignified way to live in it?
Eventually the story will come out, and when it does, I won’t be surprised if 2012 turns out to be a repeat of 1974: the jury wanted to give it to Wallace, but the board declined. If I were to be charitable, I could even suggest a more optimistic spin on this. Wallace is, after all, dead, and the Pulitzer board is not in the habit of giving posthumous awards.*
But in this case, the less optimistic spin is probably the truer one. If the board did reject Wallace, it likely did it for the same reasons it rejected Pynchon in the 1970s—its hostility to experimental fiction. And this is bad, though not simply because we should be interested in experimental forms. I myself am not, but I am interested in the other part—those questions. Unfortunately, since the 1970s, experimental fiction has been the only kind asking the big Tolstoyan questions about how we should live. Try to imagine Russell doing it, or Johnson, or any other favorites of the New Yorker and the Pulitzer board.
Wallace has become so popular since his death precisely because he was one of the few people dealing with such vital problems. These questions are simply not often asked, and when we live in a literary culture that encourages us not to ask them and refuses to reward novels that do, we should not be surprised when we end up with a literature that is so minor.
*(EDIT: Actually, I just remembered that they gave it to John Kennedy Toole in 1981, a full twelve years after his suicide. So the posthumous thing is no defense.)