What?! No Pulitzer for Fiction?

(Reposted from The Huffington Post)

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is one of the most prestigious awards in American literature. Previous fiction winners have included Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jennifer Egan and Philip Roth.  This year, no single book was chosen by the committee for the Pulitzer Fiction prize.

For the first time since 1977, by failing to come to a majority decision, the Pulitzer Board’s conclusion is that no book is worthy of the prize.

The jurors submitted these three finalists to the Pulitzer  Board:

The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace

Rollicking postmodern romp, by the late cult-favorite novelist and essayist Wallace (with help from an editor).

Leave it to Wallace (Infinite Jest, 1996, etc.) to find fascination in the workings of a tax audit. Yet, with its mock-Arthurian title, his novel explores the minds and mores of the little men in the gray flannel suits, or at least their modern gray-souled counterparts.  Wallace was nothing if not thorough, and his tale of accountant Claude Sylvanshine, heroic traveler on bad commuter airlines and dogged reader of spreadsheets, is full of details, facts and factoids assembled over years of study and rumination. All of Wallace’s intellectual interests come through: the notes and asides, the linguistic brilliance, the fact piled atop fact, the excurses into entropy and, yes, autobiography (“Like many Americans,” reads one note, “I’ve been sued…Litigation is no fun, and it’s worth one’s time and trouble to try to head it off in advance whenever possible.”) Does it add up to a story? Not always. But there are many moments of great beauty…”   (Kirkus)

 Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Russell’s lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted first novel sprang from a story in her highly praised collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006). Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, her husband and children lose their moorings, and Swamplandia! itself is endangered as audiences dwindle. The Chief leaves. Brother Kiwi, 17, sneaks off to work at the World of Darkness, a new mainland amusement park featuring the “rings of hell.” Otherworldly sister Osceola, 16, vanishes after falling in love with the ghost of a young man who died while working for the ill-fated Dredge and Fill Campaign in the 1930s. It’s up to Ava, 13, to find her sister, and her odyssey to the Underworld is mythic, spellbinding, and terrifying. Russell’s powers reside in her profound knowledge of the great imperiled swamp, from its alligators and insects, floating orchids and invasive “strangler” melaleuca trees to the tragic history of its massacred indigenous people and wildlife. Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell’s archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air.    (Booklist)

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

National Book Award winner Johnson (Tree of Smoke) has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length in this account of the life of Idaho Panhandle railroad laborer Robert Grainer. Born in 1886, orphaned by age six and placed with cousins, he’s not outwardly remarkable or compelling as the episodes of his life unfold. He marries Gladys and fathers Kate while working for a timber company, and he witnesses disparate events and characters from influenza epidemics and the advent of automobiles and airplanes to an unscheduled area stop by a young Elvis Presley. Few if any of these leave much of an impression on Robert or on a reader; instead, the appeal here lies in setting and mood. The gothic sensibility of the wilderness and isolated settings and Native American folktales, peppered liberally with natural and human-made violence, add darkness to a work that lingers viscerally with readers. VERDICT Fans of the literary end of historical fiction (with a dash of magical realism), American West/Pacific Northwest settings, or authors like Bret Harte or Cormac McCarthy should appreciate this one.  (Library Journal)

The jurors for this year’s Fiction prize were Susan Larson, the former book editor of The Times-Picayune, Maureen Corrigan, book critic for Fresh Air on NPR, and the novelist Michael Cunningham.

UPDATE: Susan Larson, the chair of the jury, told The Huffington Post by email: “The jury members were all shocked and disappointed and angry at the news, of course. We thought so highly of these three books, we took our responsibilities very seriously, and our decision was unanimous.”

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