BOB GARFIELD: For a literary fiction industry in freefall, one reliable source of good news is the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize. That’s because the Pulitzer has developed a reputation for finding a balance between the critics’ darlings and popular fiction, a sales sweet spot.
That said, at least two of this year’s three finalists were a bit unorthodox. One of them, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, was an unfinished book assembled and published posthumously. The other, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is a slim novella, much of which was published a decade ago in The Paris Review. Only the third, Swamplandia, by Karen Russell, is a fairly traditional novel. Still, it took people by surprise when the Pulitzer winners were announced and the prize for fiction went to – nobody. After all, it’s been 35 years since the last time the Pulitzer Board declined to award the fiction prize.
Author, Salon senior writer and past Pulitzer judge Laura Miller says that it’s a shame because no other award cuts through a balkanized literary world that can find precious little to agree on.
LAURA MILLER: I’m a big fan of the Pulitzer Prize. I think that it is really helpful that a lot of people who aren’t themselves writers or editors or critics have a prize that says to them, this novel — like last year’s winner, is a great example, Jennifer Egan’s, A Visit From the Goon Squad - it has a somewhat unconventional structure, but yet you might really enjoy this. And people really did. So I think that’s a great thing to have, a yearly reminder that literary fiction is not this completely impenetrable art form.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me, please, about the process.
LAURA MILLER: Well, there’s a jury of three people. Usually it’s a critic, an academic and a novelist of some kind. And they read the vast majority of the submissions which is just a total cattle call. I mean, anybody can send in their book with, I think, it’s 50 dollars. And really, anybody does. And then then they come up with three finalists.
Ultimately, the board decides who the final winner is. The chances that they are going to be deeply read enough in contemporary fiction to pick an alternate, if they don’t like the three finalists, is pretty much nil.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, now that’s okay because they do have that power to discard the recommendations of the poor schnooks who each read 300 books [LAUGHING] -
LAURA MILLER: [LAUGHS] So, they do.
BOB GARFIELD: - to choose one of their own liking. But they clearly didn’t avail themselves of that option this time.
LAURA MILLER: No, and they haven’t for a while, though they did do it three times in the seventies, which will give you a sense of how contested the idea of literary quality was in that particular era.
BOB GARFIELD: So maybe the explanation really is just in the procedures of the Pulitzer Board, but is it possible that there’s a larger explanation? You mentioned balkanization.
LAURA MILLER: Yes. The reason why I use the term “balkanization” is because that is fragmentation, plus acrimony. And so, even when you have a book, as in the year before last, with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, that a lot of people are saying, okay, this is the big unifying novel, there is actually a substantial fragment of the literary fiction-reading world that automatically hates any novel [LAUGHS] that’s declared “the great American novel.” [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Does literary fiction as a genre recover from this? Is it getting close to being irrelevant?
LAURA MILLER: [LAUGHS] Well, this is just one year but I think we are coming out of a mid-20th century period where every educated person felt that it was expected of them to at least have read some of the most celebrated literary novels of the year. And people just don’t feel that way anymore. And we can see this award as symptomatic of that.
BOB GARFIELD: Laura, thanks so much.
LAURA MILLER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Laura Miller is a former juror for the Pulitzer Prize.