Essays

A Passion for Immortality: On the Missing Pulitzer and the Problem with Prizes

By posted at 6:00 am on May 29, 2012 44

A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction.  It was the first time they had done so since 1977.  The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book.

cover covercoverThe three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide.

Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.”

When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle.

coverAnn Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.”

Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb.

I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view.

coverThere was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures.  Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC.

covercoverThe difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them.

All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time.

coverA book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles.

Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)

Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table.  Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much.

covercoverHistorically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good).

However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides.

coverThe next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it  Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy.

Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two… The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville.

Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.

The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”

coverThis is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it.

All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide.

It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.





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44 Responses to “A Passion for Immortality: On the Missing Pulitzer and the Problem with Prizes”

  1. Mark Haber
    at 8:55 am on May 29, 2012

    Wonderful article. Thank you. i especially loved the idea of going back and patting ole’ Herman Melville as a customs inspector, letting him know it wasn’t in vain.

  2. Heather
    at 9:36 am on May 29, 2012

    I wish that great literature had an immediate, recognizable status as a classic. But that truly only comes with time.

    And in the mean time, there are millions of readers like me–whether they are people who read a book once a year, or people who read a hundred books a year–with the same problem: how do you know which books to read?

    I am one of those people who reads a hundred books a year, and I still don’t have time to read every single classic, let alone read currently published fiction. I have always looked to literary prizes as a way to sift through the glut of the mundane books populating the shelves of the bookstore. I am more likely to read the entire shortlist for the Man Booker than to just read the winner, because I like to know that there are some books that smart, literary people have deemed worthy of interest that I might have otherwise overlooked.

    So while I agree with you in spirit, I can’t help but fall on the side of the literary prize. There are simply too many books for me to find the best ones by myself. I have found plenty of great books on my own, but literary prizes have introduced me to writers I would never have discovered otherwise.

  3. Greg Gerke
    at 9:38 am on May 29, 2012

    A very nice article Benjamin.

  4. Johanna van Zanten
    at 10:40 am on May 29, 2012

    Hi,
    I enjoyed reading this and be enlightened at the same time, thanks for putting literary prices and hype in perspective.
    I have felt utterly disappointed sometimes reading a highly acclaimed novel and wondered about how and who selects the winners. You answered many of my questions. Thanks for this great piece.
    Johanna van Zanten

  5. NME
    at 10:51 am on May 29, 2012

    Abish’s How German Is It is a fine novel that should not be overlooked. Very Delillo-esque, a deft treatment of identity, political terrorism, and the Post-Holocaust world that also happens to be a fleet-footed page turner. The fact that it has been forgotten has nothing to do with the quality of this work. It deserves better than a tossed-off mention in that list. In fact, judging by what Hale cites as good work, I think he’d like How German Is It. It is also the most accessible of Abish’s work, though Alphabetical Africa is a lot of fun.

  6. michael wuitchik
    at 11:03 am on May 29, 2012

    Benjamin, thanks for this thoughtful essay.

    I often find myself disappointed with prize winners. Perhaps the most important benefit of prize lists (other than to nominees and winners) is the debate that ensues.

  7. Herb Levy
    at 11:09 am on May 29, 2012

    Re: the long forgotten and deservedly so winners of the Pulitzer Prize, it’d be worth reading composer/music critic Kyle Gann’s article “Pulitzer Hacks”.

    Originally published in the Village Voice in the early 1990s, it’s included in a collection of his writings called Music Downtown.

    The history of the Pulitzer Prize for Music is even more depressing than the history of the literary prize. Besides the usual years when the worthiest works go begging, there are lots of composers who’ve only won for political reasons and many mediocre works that won because earlier major works by the same composer went unrecognized. It’s a complete mess.

  8. Bailey Public Library » Heard in the Stacks >> » Yours to explore…
    at 11:20 am on May 29, 2012

    […] From The Millions: A Passion for Immortality: On the Missing Pulitzer and the Problem with Prizes […]

  9. Sharanya Manivannan
    at 12:54 pm on May 29, 2012

    Wonderful essay – thank you.

  10. Robert Birnbaum
    at 1:13 pm on May 29, 2012

    “but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)” is one of the kinder comments one might make about Thomas Friedman’s writing.

    Also, it’s a good thing that you think Algren’s Man with the Golden Arm is pretty good…at least you read it…

  11. Joe Schuster
    at 1:15 pm on May 29, 2012

    This is a fascinating essay that touches on some complicated and important questions, I think. At a certain point, as you suggest, prizes are more often a matter of cosmic alignment–last year, for example, when the board did award a prize, to Jennifer Egan’s VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, they didn’t award it to Jonathan Dee’s THE PRIVILEGES and Chang-rae Lee’s THE SURRENDERED, the other two finalists. All three are amazing books and if the board had awarded the prize to either of the other two instead of Egan, no one could say it was a bad decision, just as we can’t say that their awarding it to Egan was a bad decision. Yet, Egan’s bio will always include “Pulitzer Prize winner” and, at least for now, the other two writers’ bios will not. Yet, it doesn’t diminish at all the literary accomplishment of either Jonathan Dee or Chang-rae Lee.

    And, yes, I agree with NME: Abish’s HOW GERMAN IS IT? is a terrific book that merits all the attention it can get.

  12. Segismundo
    at 1:18 pm on May 29, 2012

    Bah, I find Hale’s piece a bit flabby (I should also say I was not disappointed by the decision not to award the Pulitzer for fiction this year). I presume he is American, since he has a degree from the premier American writing program. Why then such annoying Anglicisms as “spot on”? What’s wrong with “on target”? And such phrases as “seducible by groupthink” are atrocious.

  13. Jack M
    at 1:29 pm on May 29, 2012

    Good essay. I wonder about the reflected glory of the literary prizes, and how much of the prestige is soaked up by those who are in the position of judging. I suspect power goes to some people’s heads, and the attention won by not picking a winner this year gives them more publicity than in a year where a winner is chosen.

  14. elizs
    at 3:14 pm on May 29, 2012

    I’ve seen Sinatra in “The Man with the Golden Arm,” but hadn’t realized the film was based on a novel.

    And now I want to read “How German Is It?” Adding it to my Goodreads queue now…

  15. Matt
    at 3:58 pm on May 29, 2012

    Thought-provoking article. But the problem is that in this day and age we need a filter. As Heather already said, there is simply too much to read. For good or for ill, prizes give you an idea of what might be worth picking out from the seemingly bottomless pool of ‘must-reads’.

  16. John Williams
    at 5:20 pm on May 29, 2012

    Loved the essay. But in addition to Matt’s reason (a filter), I also think there’s fun in playing the short-term game. I agree with Hale that the long-term game is ultimately more worthy, but the short-term and medium-term is all we’ll ever know of the eras we live through. I like that 1930 left us an extra little reminder of its short-sightedness. And I like that something inspires people reading now to argue over what they think is best, even if it’s just a transient prize, and even if readers in 2082 will mock their choice. (If there are readers in 2082. Fingers crossed.)

  17. Michael
    at 6:19 pm on May 29, 2012

    You forgot to mention what’s behind door number three, which is probably the door with the most traffic, where Satan says that the world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter AND then after you die, it will be more of the same, and none of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you.

  18. Helen DeWitt
    at 6:19 am on May 30, 2012

    Maybe we need different sorts of prizes. At present, the award of a prize is, as you say, contingent on a group reaching a consensus – the result being that everybody’s second or even third choice is likelier to win than books people loved or hated.

    Imagine, first of all, a voting system in which judges draw up two lists: a list of, say, 3 books in order of preference (the first, presumably, being the book they LOVED) and a list of 3 books in order of dislike (the first, presumably, being the book they LOATHED).

    You then have 3 prizes. One is the book on which a majority is able to agree. Two are Either/Or prizes: For these, a book must get a minimum of, say, 40% first-place votes in BOTH categories (Love and Hate). We want two possible prizes in this category, on the assumption that if votes go 40:40 L:H for Book A, the judges who loved/hated A may line up 40:40 H:L for Book B – tricky to be fair to both books if only one can get a prize. And the point, after all, is to draw books to the attention of readers: if 40% of readers LOVE Book A and 40% LOVE Book B this is a highly desirable result, more desirable than 90% tepid enjoyment of the compromise candidate. (We do obviously need to keep the prize that gets the majority of votes as well, because it is naturally not impossible that a book of such brilliance should be submitted that the judges are unanimously wowed. It would be ludicrous for the book to miss out on a prize because no one hated it.)

  19. tom
    at 9:31 am on May 30, 2012

    Maybe “there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC” because NYC is chock-a-block with MFA-credentialed writers drowning out other potential voices, which I add to the conversation because it seems parallel to the arguments above: the clutter overwhelms and we need filters to cut through it (i.e. literary prizes and writing degrees).

  20. Prakash
    at 10:51 am on May 30, 2012

    Very nice article. But pl also give a thought to all those great writers of great novels who did not write in English or any European language and did not get translated! A case in point is Govardhanram Tripathi’s masterpiece ‘ Saraswatichandra’ written in Gujarati (language of Gandhi) and published between 1883 to 1905. But then, living in same era even Tolstoy was ignored for Nobel!

  21. The Poet/Purist Catch (Make Me Herman Melville) « Catalogue of the Unsaid
    at 12:04 pm on May 30, 2012

    […] follows is a response to a great article published on The Millions yesterday. In “A Passion for Immortality: On the Missing Pulitzer and the Problem with Prizes,” Benjamin Hale discusses the Pulitzer Prize committee’s decision not to award a prize in […]

  22. TG
    at 1:31 pm on May 30, 2012

    @Michael

    “…if that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze…”

  23. We don’t need no stinkin’ awards | The Savage Breast
    at 7:20 pm on May 30, 2012

    […] which for me speaks to the whole problem of competition in the arts arena.  Benjamin Hale wrote an insightful piece on the subject for The […]

  24. Evan
    at 8:00 pm on May 30, 2012

    It’s funny, but I tend to think the exact opposite regarding NYC vs. MFA. You can go through an entire MFA program, teach at an MFA, and still have no idea what types of stories readers like to read. There’s a detached aspect to MFA’s (the self-congratulatory notion that the MFA student is one of those struggling, starving artists whose work will live on forever–which is usually not true, no matter how widely published they may be), where in NYC, at the end of the day you can be as much of an artiste as you like, but if your books don’t sell, your books don’t sell.

    At the end of the day, you can disagree with the Pulitzer and its usefulness as a selector of the best fiction of any year. But maybe that just means we as readers need to put a little less stock in the thing, not that it needs to change or stop existing (also the assertion that journalists don’t know anything about literature….I can’t tell you how amazingly smug that sounds–because they don’t have MFA’s, they’ve never read a book?)

    The Pulitzer committee has a lot of money, and they give that money to a fiction writer. I like that that happens. I like too that, while they have some misses, they also have some hits (Junot Diaz deserved every cent of his prize, by the way, and even though Martin Dressler wasn’t his best, I’m not against Steven Millhauser getting some dough). If you want to figure out a better way to give away that money, by all means propose it. But I’ll tell you this: if we leave it to one or two MFA-bred writers instead, we’re going to end up with just as many misses as if we leave it to a panel of twenty journalists.

    There’s a lot of books. This stuff is hard.

  25. Alistair
    at 12:37 am on May 31, 2012

    Evan, I think Benjamin only meant journalists should not award fiction prizes in the sense that neither should novelists award journalism prizes; that is, unless the prize got billed as the novelists’ take on the year in journalism.

  26. Alistair
    at 12:43 am on May 31, 2012

    And some committee should try out the *awesome* Helen Dewitt’s clever proposal!

  27. dcozy
    at 10:59 pm on May 31, 2012

    How impoverished one’s reading life would be if one read only literary prize winners.

  28. A link! « Carmen Maria Machado
    at 5:16 pm on June 1, 2012

    […] A great article on The Millions about the problem with literary prizes. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  29. Joe Schuster
    at 11:20 am on June 2, 2012

    On the Pulitzer and other prizes as necessary filters:

    It troubles me to think that one would need something like this to find a good book. I realize that with bookstores vanishing, it becomes more difficult to browse, but I have always found great delight in going into a bookstore and just taking down books and sampling them and then buying something I didn’t go into the store looking for.

  30. David Carlton
    at 4:54 pm on June 2, 2012

    Odd–I looked at the list of Pulitzer fiction winners linked above, and I actually found names *less* recognizable as I scrolled toward the present. Part of that may be age [I’m 64], part professional [I’m a historian, and tend to know more about older stuff], and part lack of active engagement with recent fiction. It’s also clear that older juries tended to go with novels that Said Things They Thought Needed to be Said, sometimes at the expense of aesthetic quality or relevance beyond the times–or they went with minor late novels by writers they’d failed to appreciate earlier, like Faulkner. I think it’s chronically difficult to divorce fashion from any such enterprise [the same is true of nonfiction prizes, BTW], but I do think it’s worth while to call readers’ attention to some of the most meritorious work–provided one is always aware that superlatives are always misleading.

  31. Scott P.
    at 5:03 pm on June 2, 2012

    “The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. ”

    You have it exactly backwards. I’ve heard of at least half of the winners from the 1920s-1960s. I haven’t heard of a single one of the winners from the 2000s. Y

  32. Benjamin Hale and the ongoing hand-wringing over the failure to award the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2012 « Following Pulitzer
    at 12:59 am on June 3, 2012

    […] set this particular topic down weeks ago, but a blog I read steered me to this essay about the Pulitzer Prize by Benjamin Hale, a novelist (who was eligible this year, but he swears that isn’t influencing him at […]

  33. William J. Jackson
    at 11:09 am on June 3, 2012

    Thanks for this candid piece–such honesty is rare. I especially appreciate hearing about your experience on an editorial board. the selection process seems cloaked in mystery, like so much in publishing. I often wonder how things work in the inner sanctum.

  34. » Carousel #10 : joseph dante
    at 4:30 pm on June 3, 2012

    […] read this really great essay by Benjamin Hale that addresses the real value of literary prizes and what literature lives on years and years […]

  35. Shelley
    at 11:18 am on June 4, 2012

    I love that “lasting luminance”!

    Prizes don’t let the dark horse win the race. Prizes just keeping pinning blue ribbons on the horses already on the carousel.

  36. Joe Cottonwood
    at 12:13 pm on June 4, 2012

    The three nominated novels for this year’s Pulitzer were all written by MFA authors. Could that be the problem? Are the Pulitzer judges an NYC group? Anyway, who cares? Both groups, as you say, are full of insular bullshit.

    Dividing the literary world into MFA versus NYC is like dividing the music world into Sony versus Warner. It ignores the chaotic new world of indie publishing, ebooks, blogging, podcasts, 99 cent downloads, and whatever comes next. Forget the tired old Pulitzer. We need more prizes: innovative prize-givers spotlighting innovative fiction in the new media.

  37. Mij Woodward
    at 2:24 pm on June 4, 2012

    This essay was great!

    Readers might also appreciate this article that pokes fun at the Nobel: .

    I loved Helen DeWitt’s suggestion, even though I could not follow it entirely, but by the end of her comments I was laughing myself silly.

    Now, though I agree book awards are silly, I am addicted to them for the following reasons:

    1. I, too, use their longlists and shortlists to get ideas for what to read.

    2. Where would I be without all the pro and con arguments and articles and essays like this one that are delivered before, during, and after the awards? SO ENTERTAINING!!!!! Gave my morning tea a boost.

  38. Mij Woodward
    at 2:30 pm on June 4, 2012

    Well, apparently I cannot post a link, or do not know how to do so properly. So, if any of you are interested, you can find the article about the Nobel prize by going to the NYR Blog of Tim Parks, on Oct. 6, 2011:

    “What’s Wrong With the Nobel Prize in Literature.”

  39. Sarah
    at 2:57 pm on June 4, 2012

    Good article, but I have to disagree with the following:

    “The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger….’Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”’ This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmare.”

    And then there are those writers who understand the futility and darkly humorous idea of “the legacy.” If you’re dead, you can’t care about anything. You can only hope for a legacy while you’re alive, and that hope entails suffering and anxiety as any “what-if” would. And you can never know if it will happen, you know, because you’ll be dead. It’s an exercise in futility. I cannot romanticize the life of a writer, which includes the basic act of hopefully living off your writing.

    Unfortunately, and as much as writers want to deny it, we’re not mystical beings. We need to eat and pay bills. And pleasure can only occur when you’re alive. And you don’t have a time machine, so you can’t tell Herman Melville anything. That’s the tragedy of it, something you recognize but are trying to avoid–but immortality is impossible. To be alive and forgotten sucks. To be dead and forgotten, or to be dead and remembered–well, it’s not like you’re going to care either way (and if you have some kind of cognition after death, I would assume you have bigger issues to deal with.)

    I’d also point out that this idea highly marginalizes genre writers, whom I suppose are often left out of discussions on “real art” anyway. They write for a current audience, and their work is almost guaranteed to be forgotten after 20 years. Or are they not real artists?

    And so, I’m deeply skeptical of anyone who might say “a real artist would choose x.” Ah yes, another pronouncement of what real art is. That’s a hole no one can escape.

  40. Ornamental Eye Scoops | Whimsy Speaks
    at 12:00 am on June 5, 2012

    […] Perhaps this is true of poetry, too? […]

  41. The Problem with Literary Prizes « Atlanta Booklover's Blog
    at 12:38 pm on June 6, 2012

    […] Read Hale’s essay, published at The Millions. […]

  42. Andrew Allen
    at 11:18 pm on June 9, 2012

    It’s possible that each of the finalists received more attention than they otherwise would have had there been a single winner.

    From a financial perspective, there is value in having the awards. Not only does it support the individual author but some readers rely on the winners lists for their purchases. This increases sales for book sellers and as a consequence supports the literary industry/business/art as a whole.

  43. Rita Arens
    at 6:05 pm on June 11, 2012

    It’s a tough thing to turn one’s back on something other people value — I think that’s where I come down on the issue of prizes. Everyone’s taste is different — and extremely different when it comes to what one likes to do with one’s free time — and so I rely on friends and reviewers whose tastes run close to mine for recommendations at the end of the day, because they like what I like.

    I have liked many Pulitzer Prize-winning books and many virtually unknown books, but the problem of discoverability is huge now with so many books being published each year. As a writer, I’d take any prize someone handed me knowing how much stock is put in prizes by the reading public, as the more people buy your book the better chance you’ll get to sell the next one, and if you sell the next one and the next one eventually (one hopes) you’re able to put more daylight time to it and pull back on your full-time job. I’m trying to find the combination of art and commerce as I evolve as a writer — I want people to get the chance to read my books, and that won’t happen if no one knows they exist. I see prizes as a way to broadcast, “Hey, I wrote a book!” especially if you’re not already on every front table at Barnes & Noble.

    Still, I completely understand where you are coming from and love the lust vs. love comparison — I began writing out of the desire to live forever, for sure.

  44. Should I Vote in the Hugos? « Laughing at the Abyss
    at 12:05 pm on July 18, 2012

    […] Indeed…not that long ago here at Laughing at the Abyss I asked readers to indulge me in a thought experiment and ponder if a world completely bereft of awards would be measurably worse than a world with them.  I’ll concede that awards sometimes fulfill a useful function by shining a spotlight on work that might otherwise not get the attention it deserves (although I think a fair assessment would have to also take into account that sometimes awards end up shining a spotlight on work that doesn’t deserve such attention; such as when the Pulitzer Prize for 1930 passed over Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkn…). […]

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