Sunday, April 22, 2012

THE WIZARD OF OZ AND THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION

Surprised and appalled that there was no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded this year, I sent Sig Gissler, a professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism and the administrator for the awards, an email on April 19, expressing my dismay. We exchanged emails the very next day, which ultimately opened my eyes to a previously held assumption that the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction represented the very best novel written in a calendar year. Not so, I discovered: not necessarily for this year, but for both past and future years to come.

For those unfamiliar with the process of awarding their Fiction Prize (I being one of these “unfamiliars” before this) here’s how it works. Three jurors are chosen by the Board to recommend three finalists. They are usually critics but may also include a novelist. In this recent failure to award a Fiction prize, one novelist, Michael Cunningham and two book critics —Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson—were asked to process 341 submissions over a six month period of time and recommend three finalists to the 20 member Board, who must then pick the winner by a majority vote (10 votes are required as only 18 Board members can vote; the administrator and president of the University being non-voting members). The Board, according to their own description “consists mostly of major newspaper editors and executives, along with six academics including the president of Columbia University and the dean and administrator of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism [Sig Gissler], and it elects its own members for a three-year term. Members of the board and the jurors are selected with close attention given to professional excellence and affiliation, as well as diversity in terms of gender, ethnic background, geographical distribution, and the size of newspapers.”

In my email I quoted from a letter I received from Kurt Vonnegut 13 years ago, concerning the difficulties of getting 90 year old Berry Fleming, a distinguished Southern novelist (whose 12 novels we published), honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. “The Academy,” he said “is much like an Exxon tanker with the skipper dead drunk in the lavatory off the engine room. It doesn’t act the way it’s supposed to. I myself no longer attend meetings because of its lack of maneuverability. Too many good writers (and no doubt painters and composers and historians and architects and so on) have gone to their graves believing that they lacked that indefinable certain something which kept them from joining the cream of the cream. Irwin Shaw and James Jones and Richard Yates have failed to get in for a couple of maddening reasons at least: first, poets campaign for each other like politicians, so that most of the writers honored are poets now, and second, painters and musicians and so on get to vote on writers, too, and have never heard of Yeats or Fleming, and are often log-rollers. ‘If you’ll vote for an artist you never heard of in my field, I’ll vote for one I never heard of in yours, and so on'.”

I told Sig that I had no knowledge of whether similar log-rolling played a part in choosing a Fiction winner this year, or simply the fact that this group is ill suited for choosing a winner. There is no doubt that this Board is equipped to make Pulitzer Awards for Journalism, for most all of its 20 members are journalists, columnists, and newspaper editors: perfect people for making judgments in the 14 Prizes for Journalism and Nonfiction. But there is no head of any English Department and only one novelist among them (Junot Diaz). Is this a group that can be trusted to make a serious assessment of a prize-winning novel? I would think not.

An outsider might also reasonably assume that none of these titles might have been worthy picks. Or that the Board was equally divided on what was best, with nobody commanding 10 votes. As one of the jurors, Maureen Corrigan said, “We’ll never know why the Pulitzer board declined to award the prize this year, because, as is the board members’ right, they’ve drawn their Wizard of Oz curtain closed tight. I’d like to think that The Pale King, Train Dreams and Swamplandia! each garnered such fierce partisans on the board that no compromise could be reached. Right. Whenever I succumb to that fantasy, the words written by the winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in fiction ring in my head: ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’ ”

Corrigan used the Wizard of Oz comparison, referring to the secrecy of the Board to discuss their reasons for no award this year (confirmed by Gissler in his email to me: “I am not at liberty to discuss the reasons beyond saying that multiple factors and perspectives were involved and, in the end, none of the nominated finalists mustered the mandatory majority vote.”). As far as I’m concerned there is another apt comparison to the overestimated “Wizard” in the film, having to do with his being an ordinary man—Frank Morgan—who manipulated and enhanced his importance by using smoke and mirrors to make something much bigger of himself than was warranted.

Before this fiasco, I assumed that Pulitzer selections were made by other fiction writers—as is the case with the National Book Awards, where judges for fiction are also novelists, and non-fiction is judged by writers of non-fiction. Just as the Edgar Awards are judged by mystery writers, and the $10,000 Chautauqua Award for Best First Fiction is judged by the oldest reading group in America. This failure to let novelists determine the best novel diminishes greatly the gravitas of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, though it remains the leading “Brand Name” in the Awards world. Still, this 2012 failure to pick a winner exposes the fact that The Emperor wears no clothes. Can they choose good fiction; surely. Great fiction occasionally, yes. But the odds seemed stacked against this because of their skewed and tortured selection process (never mind that the President of Columbia failed to give the Fiction Prize to Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1941—though his jurors re commended it—because the President was a fascist sympathizer).

I reminded Gissler that earlier this year he decried the fact that too many novels were submitted for the Fiction award and that the large number of submissions made it hard to handle them. That’s surely apparent now, for under their current procedures how can three jurors possibly read two novels every day without doing a hell of a lot of skimming?

I also suggested—as did each of the justifiably frustrated and angry jurists—that there had to be a better way to structure the Fiction prize, one being that there might be at least five or six jurors who might divvy up their overburdened reading, with each suggesting three (or four, or five) novels they enjoyed the most, passing these on to the other jurors, and then collectively voting for the top novel without allowing a self-perpetuating board of journalists to make that final decision. Five or six finalists are the way it works for the National Book Awards, for Chautauqua, and for the Edgars. Expecting each Pulitzer juror to read 341 titles is absurd. Equally ridiculous is having an overseer board of newspaper editors and journalists make the final determination of a prize for fiction if you are truly looking for the best novel.

I asked Gissler for a refund of our entrance fees—as other publishers should as well—if the prize they applied for is not given…not that I expected him to say “Sure, fine,” which he did not, replying instead that “the $50 handling fee is non-refundable, as stated on the entry form.” So let me take that back and propose two other possibilities: double your award to $20,000 next year for the $10,000 you saved this year, or, even better, divide that money up amongst the three jurors for their wasted time and effort on a project they took seriously, even if they didn’t have the time to carefully consider so many submissions.

Failing that, here’s another suggestion: Lock up all Board members in a conference room at the School of Journalism, sleeping bags and cots on the side, provide food from the cafeteria or McDonalds, and adopt the procedures of the Catholic Church when electing a new Pope: only allow them out when a puff of smoke announces a winner.

Over the past few decades several of our authors have done quite well in award situations where judgments are made by peers. This year, one of our five submissions for the Pulitzer, Leonard Rosen's All Cry Chaos, was chosen as one of six fiction finalists for the Chautauqua Book Award and as one of five finalists for an Edgar Award. Over the past seven years we've had three winners of the PEN New England/Winship Awards (Edward Delany’s Warp & Weft, Kermit Moyers’ The Chester Chronicles, and K.C. Fredericks’ Inland ), had a finalist for the National Book Awards (Sandra Scofield’s Beyond Deserving), and a Nobel Prize nomination for Berry Fleming.

Of course there were no journalists making the final decision in these cases.

I welcome your comments and hope you will go to the revised Permanent Press website, for both the Newsletter and other breaking news updates. You might also consider contacting Sig Gissler by email (sg138@columbia.edu) and share your thoughts about their Fiction Prize.


Marty

5 comments:

  1. The Pulitzers penchant for secrecy and incompetence puts them in company with the Motion Picture Association of America and the Central Intelligence Agency.

    Here's another proposal: A radical reformation of the selection, reading, and awards process, along the lines of the National Book Award. A literary prize that can't evolve with the times, especially with its steampunk antiquity and Augusta-esque outdatedness, make it prime time for it to move on and abandon this idiotic means to select a winner.

    Another question: Where does this non-refundable money go? Is the Columbia Board as vampiric as the Bank of America in defrauding investors (in this case, novelists)?

    Just when you thought you could trust "something" in American culture, it turns out, yet again, to be made of smoke and mirrors, and administered with the naked charlatanry of a midway carny.

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  2. Thank you for exposing how the process works. It does seem that it needs to be overhauled. It's not physically possible for anyone to read 341 novels in 6 months. And keeping the entry fees, for a prize that was not awarded strikes a dishonest note, in my opinion.

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  3. An excellent and incisive analysis Marty. I was shocked at the shortlist (and outcome) this year, and like you, I thought that the fiction judging committee consisted of fiction writers (or at least serious readers!). We certainly need more people questioning, interrogating, and holding to account these prizes that have such an impact on what the public chooses to read.

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  4. Well done. I've taken the liberty of sharing your spot-on analysis on The Bloomsbury Review's Facebook page.

    Things that make you shake your head.

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  5. Holy crap, these people told you to read the fine print? The Pulitzer people are up to their neck in slime. I guarantee you many of those fiction voters are gray drones who never read fiction. It's like asking pharmacists to vote on fashion. What the hell do they know anyway? Thanks for exposing this crap. Next year a little justice? It's pretty to think so.

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