I’m not one of your knockabout, knuckle-scarred, Internet-controversy-courting book critics. Occasionally I stumble into controversy accidentally, but not because I enjoy it. It’s probably just because I’m a weird person. This may be one of those times. But I want to say this: I support the Pulitzer board’s decision not to give out an award for fiction this year.
Here’s the thing. It seems to me that the novel as a medium has a very low signal-to-noise ratio. By which I mean: there are a lot of novels published, but the vast majority of them don’t represent major contributions to the medium. They may be interesting or innovative or fun or shocking or awesome-at-the-time, but they are not in any lasting sense great. (Large caveat here, consisting of post about the problematic/nature of literary greatness. OK, done.)
But sometimes I feel like we — readers, authors, critics, and as someone who is all three of those, I’m fully implicated here — are in a bit of denial about this. Every year the literary press praises dozens if not hundreds of novels to the skies, asserting explicitly or implicitly that these books will probably not be suffering water damage in the basements of their authors’ houses 20 years from now. But historically, anyway, that’s not the way the novelistic ecology works.
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I don’t want to sound callous. I’m saying this because I care deeply about the state of American fiction, to which I have devoted my whole career. It needs attrition, or it gets muddled and confused, and the really subtle and powerful voices get lost in the babble. I think of it like those forests that need the occasional forest fire as part of their life cycle. Not many novels — and I wish I had numbers to go with this, but hey, if I had numbers and statistics I’d be a real journalist — are still being read 10 years after they’re published. But that’s OK.
And very few, vanishingly few, novels are still being read 100 years on — they go to live in Amazon’s long tail, or they disappear entirely. Humanity slowly digests and metabolizes the novels it produces until only an infinitely precious few remain. But we write and read and talk as if great novels come out all the time.
So for example, the popular consciousness still has a pretty firm grip on maybe a dozen American novels from 2002, a decade ago: Everything Is Illuminated, The Nanny Diaries, The Lovely Bones, Prague, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, Good in Bed, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Middlesex (which did win the Pulitzer)… I’m sure there are others. YMMV.
Go back to 1912 and I can only find three I recognize: Death in Venice, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and Riders of the Purple Sage. (Cue avalanche of mail from lovers of The Reef, by Edith Wharton. I recuse myself — I haven’t read it.) In 1812 I can’t find anything at all except The Swiss Family Robinson. And that was by a Swiss guy.
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True, fewer novels were published back then, which probably accounts for some of the curve. But not all of it.
And then: not all masterpieces are for all readers. We all have blind spots; sometimes I think I’m mostly blind spot. There are plenty of classics I can’t abide. I’ve never liked Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and large swaths of Faulkner feel turgid and overwritten to me, and I’m allergic to Pynchon. (As a wiser critic than me, Laura Miller, points out, the Pulitzer jury actually recommended Gravity’s Rainbow in 1974, but the Pulitzer board negged it, producing another no-award verdict.) If I were a Pulitzer judge, and these books were submitted to me, I wouldn’t have been able to honor them. It’s not them, it’s me.
So given how few really important novels get published, and the fact that nobody can grok all of them, what are the odds that an actual masterpiece will find a jury member and a few board members who are capable of recognizing it as such? They’re high — but they’re not so high that it’s going to happen every year, and for an organization like the Pulitzer board to automatically hand a prize to a novel every single year feels a bit like bad faith to me. It’s not a prize for the best work of fiction of the year, it’s a prize for a distinguished work of fiction. I don’t know what “distinguished” actually means — the Pulitzer people seem to use it every other word — but I do know this: The first rule of a responsible critic is, never lie. Your job as a critic isn’t to guess what other people will consider great, thereby covering your ass, it’s to honor what you love. And you can’t love everything. It bothers me to see great work neglected, but it bothers me almost as much to see mediocre books over-praised.
God knows, there were good books that came out last year, and it would have been terrific for booksellers and book publishers and the winner if the Pulitzer board could have picked one. It would have made me happy. But it would have helped nobody for the board to pick a winner in bad faith. It was the board’s job to find a winner, but it was also its job to admit defeat if it couldn’t.
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Would I have made the same decision? Probably not. If I’d been on the Pulitzer board, I might well have voted to give the prize to David Foster Wallace, posthumously, for The Pale King. It’s a stretch, given the book’s unfinished state, but The Pale King definitely takes off for brief, intensely brilliant flights, and moreover in his lifetime Wallace was rather neglected by prize-givers — he never won, or as far as I know was even a finalist for, a Pulitzer, a National Book Award or a National Book Critics Circle Award. (Unless I’m screwing up the years, Infinite Jest was pipped at the post by Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler, Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever and Gina Berriault’s Women in Their Beds, in that order). But I also know that the point of the Pulitzer isn’t to make up for an author’s past neglect. It’s about singling out great books.
And if I’d been on the jury? I didn’t read all of last year’s novels, because nobody could, but on the whole, yes, I did think there was a distinguished novel published last year. It was George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons: it is (I would have said, in my Pulitzer citation) an example of wildly sophisticated storytelling that radically and virtuosically reinterprets a popular tradition, namely epic fantasy, to produce a work of overwhelming emotional power. I think it was indeed a very distinguished example of the novel form.
But that’s probably why they never ask me to be on the Pulitzer jury.