All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
The Pulitzer news is in and it’s not good news for fiction. No prize was awarded in the fiction category this year. The finalists were David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Word is, the Pulitzer board simply couldn’t come to consensus, so they decided to award none of them. Of the finalists, I’ve read the first two. I do have a certain fondness for Wallace and since he is no longer with us and cannot contribute yet more to the literary landscape, I’d like to have seen The Pale King take it. On the other hand, I believe Johnson has been passed over at least once before. While I liked Swamplandia, I wouldn’t say I loved it. But that’s the thing about books, I might like something you hate and you may love something that I just can’t stand. It’s subjective.
I will say that the book that really stuck with me over the past year wasn’t on the list at all. I loved The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. But that book wasn’t even a finalist, so what do I know?
The lack of award got me to thinking, though. What do these awards really mean to the average reader? Are the Pulitzer winners must-reads for you? I’m sure there are statistics somewhere that tell us how the prize affects sales, but I’m more interested in personal motivations. Do you seek out the latest Pulitzer winner? Or do you find that you’ve usually already read the book in question? Or do you just not care?
I decided to suss out my own reading habits by looking at the past 25 years of Pulitzer winners for fiction. Turns out, I’ve read all but seven of the fiction winners during that time period. With the exception of one, Tinkers by Paul Harding (2010), the award had no bearing on my choice to pick up the book. In most cases, I’d already read the book before the award was announced.
More interesting was actually seeing which of the books stuck with me, which ones I pick up again and again. There are a few. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1988) still breaks my heart. I first listened to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1992) on tape while driving home alone from my grandfather’s funeral. I read it again soon after, because I wanted to see the words on the page. I’ve recommended Richard Ford’s Independence Day (1996) to more than a few people. Ditto Eugenides Middlesex (2003) and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2004). And I could go on. It’s a strong list.
In other words, my reading tastes seem to align with the Pulitzer decisions most years. The thing about awards, though, is that they are so limited. Even in years when a prize is awarded for a work of fiction, there is only one award. I don’t believe I’ve yet lived a year of my life in which I didn’t pick up a novel or collection of stories that changed me in some real, lasting way. Most of those books are not on the Pulitzer list. Most of them never receive any award at all. Yet I value these books. I love them fiercely. I would not be the same person if I hadn’t read them. So, I say kudos to all the fiction writers out there who didn’t win the Pulitzer this year. You’re in good company.