April 16th, 2012 / 12:53 am
Events & Mean

Does the Pulitzer suck, and if so, whom?

Winners of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize will be announced today at 3pm. Any predictions? The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has been awarded to no one, apparently. Nominees were Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. I’m curious what you think of the prize (Fiction category or in general). Is it

a) a highly prestigious stamp of approval that guarantees an enjoyable and edifying read

b) a mainstream award given to a conventional, palatable work (though the work may be formally inventive in superficial ways), leading to increased sales, certainly among readers of “serious literary fiction” but mostly among a segment of people who want to acquire cultural capital without too much effort

OR are you an enlightened in-betweener? If you tell me I will put it in a pie chart. I remember “at one point in my life” having a lot of fun making lists in a .txt file of Pulitzer winners and a future reading order that I would never end up following. I also remember (much later) finding Finding a Form by William Gass in the library, [I don’t mean this to sound like a conversion story. Beloved was pretty phenomenal. Lonesome Dove features a river full of snakes.] and reading this on the first essay’s first page:

…the Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill…
from “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize” by William Gass

In the essay, originally published in the NYTBR in 1985, Gass argues that the Pulitzer was doomed from the outset by its selection criteria, originally worded as: “Annually, for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” He mentions that committees are composed of people, who owe other people, have grudges, biases, and limited time in which to carefully read 100+ books. These criticisms would seem to apply to other awards, however. Gass also points out that the Pulitzer passed over Chromos by Felipe Alfau for an unnamed “third-rate work.” The unnamed work is The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. Here’s the opening:

It was a Saturday afternoon on La Salle Street, years and years ago when I was a little kid, and around three o’clock Mrs. Shannon, the heavy Irish woman in her perpetually soup-stained dress, opened her back window and shouted out into the courtyard, “Hey, Cesar, yoo-hoo, I think you’re on television, I swear it’s you!” When I heard the opening strains of the I Love Lucy show I got excited because I knew she was referring to an item of eternity, that episode in which my dead father and my Uncle Cesar had appeared, playing Ricky Ricardo’s singing cousins fresh off the farm in Oriente Province, Cuba, and north in New York for an engagement at Ricky’s nightclub, the Tropicana.

Saturday afternoon? Heavy Irish woman? My dead father? Fresh off the farm? Here’s the opening of Chromos:

The moment one learns English, complications set in.

I’d be surprised if Dalkey Archive Press (publisher of Chromos) ever put out a bad book. I’d also be surprised if one of their titles ever won a Pulitzer. But it seems any discussion of the prize ends up becoming one of taste in general. Some people enjoy ______, others think ______ is drivel. It’s difficult to argue with someone who says “But I LIKE this book.” Is the critical opinion of someone who has read 1000+ books more “relevant/refined/informed/authoritative” than the opinion of one who has read 20, or only reads “pulp?” Do you think Thomas Pynchon would’ve turned down the Pulitzer (as Gass suggests) if the jury’s recommendation hadn’t been overruled in 1974?


Also please start pronouncing it as “pull it sir” rather than that “pule.”

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  1. Peter Jurmu


  2. Brooks Sterritt

      bro you always pronounce it with that “pule” i’ve heard it

  3. Peter Jurmu
  4. Helen

      Dull fact: where I’m from Pull, Pool, Pule all sound the same.

  5. Bobby Dixon

      Some writers that do really good/neat work do not make a lot of money off of their work, but rely on teaching positions — Junot Diaz and Robert Olen Butler are two quick examples. I would assume winning a pull it sir means some sort of tenure-related treatment from their institution. 

      I wonder if anyone has thought, I’m going to write a book that will win the X prize, and then wrote something that successfully won that prize.

  6. postitbreakup

      great post

      no point in evaluating it re: aesthetics/preferences, since ‘Some people enjoy ______, others think ______ is drivel. It’s difficult to argue with someone who says “But I LIKE this book.”’ is the only thesis i could make anyway

      but, i’ve always loved the idea that there was a prize for literature even common people took seriously (whether they ever read one of the winners or not). i’ll never get a sports trophy or an academy award or an emmy or a grammy but i can shoot for a pulitzer*, it feels nice

      i always pronounced it  “pull” until i heard someone say “pule” & i felt like an idiot & have been saying it as “pule” ever since, sorry

      *note: i will never ever win a pulitzer or probably even finish a novel

  7. Brooks Sterritt

      Didn’t Franzen sort of do that with the Corrections?

  8. Brooks Sterritt

      (as in he set out to write a successful, sweeping social novel and then was a pulitzer finalist i think?)

  9. Anti Epiphany

      Of course it’s possible for a genuinely good book to receive the Pulitzer Prize, because even some genuinely good books are available to be read in mediocre ways.

  10. Anti Epiphany

      Oh and “pull it sir” got me all hot.

  11. Brooks Sterritt

      Jeffrey Eugenides is going to win.

  12. Brooks Sterritt

      Donald D. DeLillo

  13. Anonymous

      I really liked A Visit From the Goon Squad, especially the powerpoint chapter, and feel it deserved the award last year.

      I have this theory that they kind of alternate between what I’ve come to think of as “hard” and “soft” books. There’s no value judgement behind these words, though I tend to prefer the former. It’s kind of an aesthetic thing that I have trouble explaining – basically it’s like the prose has edges (I don’t mean that it’s edgy), or it doesn’t. Diaz, McCarthy, Egan are “hard” in my opinion, while Marilyn Robinson, Paul Harding, and Elizabeth Strout are “soft.” Anyway, I tend to be pleased with their harder selections (though I disliked Oscar Wao), and kind of “Meh” on the softer. Anyway, that’s just my little theory. Not sure why it happens, but it seems to have been the pattern for the last few years.

      Also, I think Art of Fielding will be on the list, possibly even FTW.

  14. Anonymous

      Sadly, Dalkey has put out some bad books.

      I have no Pulitzer predictions. 

  15. Brooks Sterritt

      which ones, just out of curiosity?

  16. Brooks Sterritt

      Hard/soft alternation is an interesting theory–I could sort of see that. Art of Fielding, hmmmmmmm

  17. Drew Lerman

      No one wins!

  18. Austin Taylor

      My guess is that The Pale King was chosen by the jury but the board overruled because it was an unfinished novel.

  19. Bobby Dixon

      It did win the NBA, and maybe Eugenides did to some extent w/ Middlesex try to set out and write some sweeping social novel. 

      I think it is exciting that nobody won the award in Fiction this year. 

  20. Bobby Dixon

      His book was kind of garbage and really well written. 

  21. Eric Raymond
  22. Anonymous

       You’re probably right. What a pathetic state of affairs if they are still doing that sort of thing after all these years.

  23. Anonymous

      The Pulitzer and Nobel jumped the shark a long time ago. The National Book Award is the most reliable of the three, and the only one I take seriously these days.

  24. Brooks Sterritt

      Sounds plausible–I haven’t read it (assuming you mean Jeff)

  25. Brooks Sterritt

      if you name a Dalkey book you think is bad and I’ll read it

  26. Brooks Sterritt

      jumping the shark jumped the shark a LONG time ago

  27. Monday’s Margins: I’m Nobody, Who Are You? Are You — A Pulitzer Winner — Too? | Identity Theory

      […] HTMLGiant asks: “Does the Pulitzer suck, and if so, whom?” […]

  28. Ken Baumann


      Yes. That’s right. It was Satie who said, later, the great thing is not to refuse the Legion of Honor—the great thing is not to have deserved it. Everything was turning about. All the old traditional order was reversing. Satie said Ravel may have refused the Legion of Honor but that all his work accepted it! If you receive honors you must do so with lowered head—as punishment. You have disclosed yourself; you have committed a fault.

  29. deadgod

      1) Even a blind squirrel will find a nut once in a while.

      2) To find a needle in a haystack:  a) magnet; b) burn and sift; c) tell the unluckiest person you know that you dropped a quarter in the haystack.

  30. Brooks Sterritt

      This is great. I have to read his Paris Review interview now!

  31. Anonymous

      ooooooh dull facts! bring it on, dull facts! what else you got? (helen the comment you made—god, pardon me for saying it—made me ‘lol’)

  32. Anonymous

      When, precisely? I’m reading some of Transtromer’s poetry and enjoying it quite a bit. He’s no Baudelaire or anything, but it’s good stuff – strong images, good sentences, etc. Reminds me of Wallace Stevens for some reason. Anyway, my point is, they picked a good writer just last year, so… when did said shark jump take place?

  33. Anonymous

      I was mainly thinking of the fiction writers who have won the Nobel  in literature, the same award that hasn’t gone to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. They have been adamant about their dismissal of American fiction in particular over the years, so I have no reason to respect them or take them seriously. 

  34. deadgod

      I understand that this blogicle and thread are almost all about the Fiction prize, and everybody would have been Jimmy Joyce’s biggest fan EVER the first day they read the first page – before anybody told them it was plush glow – , so prizes are obviously basically totally weak, but these prizes draw at least a bit of spotlight to investigative reporting, sometimes from less monied, less corporate sources. and let me take the brave, lonely stand of digging that attention is paid to something as useful and unremunerative as making shit up.

  35. Anonymous

      You talk too much. Shut up. 

  36. Brooks Sterritt

      People approach Joyce because his work has been praised over decades by those who appreciate a certain kind of literature, not because he ever won a prize. Once one approaches Joyce (because of critical reception over time) one enjoys the language or not. Gass’s criticism of the Pulitzer is that it’s a commercially motivated publicity blasto for upper-middlebrowers everywhere. It’s a polemic that he doesn’t explain in as much detail as maybe he should but it personally gives me some fire. I’m all for things that encourage people to read but not just any old thing. What’s your favorite work that won the Pulitzer?

  37. Anonymous

       That’s a little like throwing the baby out with the bath water, I think. Yes, they probably have a bit of an anti-American bias these days, but they weren’t exactly stingy with the giving Americans the award before ’93.

      I can see why you might find the whole thing a little grating (I mean, Cormac McCarthy isn’t going to live forever), but “…I have no reason to respect them or take them seriously” is a little much.

  38. Anonymous

       Confederacy of Dunces/The Road/Goon Squad/Cavalier and Klay/American Pastoral/Middlesex

      Let’s just pretend those are all one really long book.

  39. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      kavalier and clay/stories of john cheever (if only for goodbye, my brother) are tops, for me. but to try and remember reading to kill a mockingbird in 8th grade… i remember loving it and reading it all up well before it was due (as an assignment). 
      1998: american pastoral read like a book its author decided was going to win an award. for me, it wasn’t dreck, but it wasn’t a gem. underworld (a finalist) was another book that read like the author decided they were going to win an award. for me, each sentence, taken separately, could be considered gorgeous. all together, however, underworld didn’t sing like each sentence suggested it should (or would). bear and his daughter (another 1998 finalist) read like its author was fists up against the world. wrist deep in the face of the pulitzer prize, robert stone wasn’t going to win an award that year.
      i feel a big whatever about awards. 

  40. Anonymous

      Probably? LOL.

  41. Anonymous

      The Pulitzer is better, but it simply awards books that are already getting a shit ton of buzz and have been stamped and approved by critics. It’s a very “safe” award, unlike the National Book Award as of late.

  42. Anonymous

       I can’t read their minds.

  43. Anonymous

      Patrik Ourednik’s Case Closed is not a very good book. 

  44. Anonymous

       I listened to the audiobook of American Pastoral at work (night shift at a hotel) and spent a good bit of time hiding so customers wouldn’t see me crying. So, yeah, it worked for me.

      I think awards are good if only because they get people, some of whom would never do so otherwise, to have conversations about books.

  45. Anonymous

      I would much rather you buy and read a good Dalkey book, but have at it. Dalkey publishes a shit ton of books every year with a very small staff, which is to be applauded, but not every book they publish is going to be of the highest quality – right? Like some of their books are going to be bad. I don’t blame them. ‘Bad’ or ‘Good’ is often related to taste, but Case Closed is objectively bad :)

  46. Anonymous

      Also, The Pale King is not a very good book. It’s okay, though! DFW wrote several great books. 

      Swamplandia is also not very good. I haven’t read the Denis Johnson. 

      Maybe this is a message from the Pulitzer people to choose better fucking finalists?

  47. Peter Jurmu

      You’re objectively mittens.

  48. deadgod

      You exemplify your criticism.  Take your own advice.

  49. deadgod

      That was the point of mentioning Joyce!

      It’s easy, after decades, to superimpose, back those decades, a consensus of ‘quality’ and influence on an initial impression of incomprehension (and initial response of neglect):  ‘Joyce lived nineteen years after Ulysses was published whole – which means even more time to realize the brilliance of Dubliners and Portrait – !  Nineteen years!!  Those IDIOTS.  Etc.’

      –the point being that ‘lifetime achievement’ awards are naturally going to miss the finest writers of their time who haven’t been metabolized sufficiently by literary culture before their deaths.

      And with annual ‘best’-of-the-year awards, the lag time will look, from a retrospective, even more randomized in terms of picking out work of lasting value.

      Look, for example, at the Wittgenstein’s Mistress rejection list posted now:  ‘No publication for that guy – what a loser!’ already is morphing into ‘No Pulitzers for that guy??  What a stupid prize.’

      …you see what I mean?

  50. deadgod

      Here’s their own list of winners (and you can look up “finalists”):  http://www.pulitzer.org/bycat/Fiction .  Looking at this list, I’m definitely surprised (in a couple of ways).

      Here are my two favorite winners – which I’d propose as balance against the argument that a prize that didn’t recognize Markson is completely worthless:  The Optimist’s Daughter and The Killer Angels.

      Here’s my own short list:  To Kill a Mockingbird, The Fixer, Cheever’s Stories, The Executioner’s Song, The Known World.

      Here’s some pretty good books from the winners’ list – pretty diverse, too – :  The Old Man and the Sea, Death in the Family, The Reivers is okay (A Fable, which supposedly was the excuse for giving him the Nobel, is bad), Confessions of Nat Turner, Humboldt’s Gift, the last two Rabbit books, Ironweed, A Summons to Memphis, Beloved, The Road.

      And there are several of the books I haven’t read – Stegner’s – that are loved by conscientious readers.

      Look, art prizes are silly.  But they sometimes do something which I’d be astounded to discover that you didn’t agree was worth doing:  they worthily direct attention where otherwise it might not have gone.

  51. reynard

      don’t be silly, ‘bad’ and ‘good’ are always related to taste

  52. Anonymous

      Sorry, I thought the “:)” emoticon at the end of that sentence would make it clear that I was being sarcastic, as in “Case Closed is SO bad as to be objectively so.” 

  53. Brooks Sterritt

      I see what you mean, though I wonder how long is necessary to be “sufficiently metabolized by literary culture” considering the demand for Ulysses in the US (in certain circles) even under a ban. I also think there are more factors preventing the Pulitzer from recognizing certain kinds of art than their focus on literature from the present.

  54. reynard


  55. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      sure: awards (the pulitzer) put books in the news. that’s a good thing. 
      american pastoral was ok up until the swede pukes in his daughter’s face. normally, something like that would make me laugh laugh laugh laugh with excitement. but there, it made me laugh laugh laugh laugh with embarrassment. not good.