Cunningham’s Response to No Pulitzer for Fiction

This week in the New Yorker, Michael Cunningham has a two-part essay on the process of selecting three candidates (above) for the Pulitzer Prize and the pain of learning that no award for fiction would be given at all. The last time this happened was in 1974 when Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It was one of the candidates and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was eligible. The reason the 18 voting members of Pulitzer Board decided to without the prize is a mystery. The deliberations were sealed.

“I wanted not only to recognize genius but also to escape going down in history as one of the people who failed to recognize it.” — Michael Cunningham

The news obviously disturbed Cunningham, who along with Maureen Corrigan, the book critic on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and a professor of English at Georgetown University, and Susan Larson, the former book editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and host of “The Reading Life” on NPR, served as the three jurors that put forth the candidate books from among 300 novels and collections of short stories. In part one, Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year, he writes, “The members of the board can, if they’re unsatisfied with the three nominees, ask the jury for a fourth possibility. No such call was made.” Who can blame him for being frustrated? The three of them spent many hours, days, weeks and months reading books and discussing their merits.

If nothing else good comes of the committee’s non-decision, we now have Cunningham’s experience of the process of choosing the candidates. And even though Cunningham, Corrigan and Larson won’t be teaming up next year to make the selections, it’s wonderful to learn about their individual preferences, since they’re all such accomplished professionals. According to Cunningham, Corrigan, “wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed.” Larson wanted to fall in love with the book. And Cunningham wanted to swoon over the sentences. He “tended to balk if a book contained some good lines but also some indifferent ones,” he writes and he “insisted that every line should be a good one.”

Together they worked to define greatness — a deeply subjective matter. Plenty of great novels have been overlooked by Pulitzer jurors and committees of the past. And some books, Cunningham writes, “fell like Icarus immediately upon publication,” namely The Sound and the Fury and The Great Gatsby. He seemed worried that he might do the same. In the second essay, Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury, Part II: How To Define Greatness?, he says, “I wanted not only to recognize genius but also to escape going down in history as one of the people who failed to recognize it.”

Although the committee passed on the award this year, greatness with a capital “G” will ultimately be defined by future readers. If Cunningham, Corrigan and Larson overlooked a great novel or collection of short stories from the pile of 300 books they had to chose from, future generations will know. Or if the committee itself failed to agree that one of the three candidates was remarkable in 2012, future readers will set the record straight.

Unfortunately, that’s no consolation for the writers from this year’s batch. “A literary prize is, at best, one way of drawing readers to a book that deserves more serious attention than it might have gotten without a prize,” says Cunningham. After all, the prize should be for the best book of the year, not the best book of all time. And even if time shows everyone to be wrong, even if future generations agree that the jurors made the mistake of not putting forth the “right” candidates and even if the committee doesn’t select The One, the choice itself is a reflection of the culture of literature at that time. And that should stand for something.

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