The news that this year's Pulitzer prize, one of the premier US literary trophies, now in its 96th year, decided not to award a prize in the category of fiction (or, indeed, in editorial writing) was coolly described by the New York Times as "notable".
However, in some quarters, there's already been some predictable hand-wringing. Jonathan Galassi, CEO of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a poet, translator and seasoned man of letters, with a distinguished track record of editorial excellence, has declared himself to be "shell-shocked" by this decision. No doubt there will be others who deplore a missed opportunity to promote new fiction and who raise that old, incendiary cry of The American Novel In Danger.
That – as I see it – would be hasty. There are at least three reasons to keep calm and carry on.
First, this quirky, ephemeral slight is not unprecedented. In 1977, the Pulitzer jury also chose to snub the contemporary American novel and declined to award a prize in the fiction category. The sky did not fall in, the sun rose over the East River, and New York publishing carried on, undiminished. From some points of view, it actually entered a long boom of magnificent remuneration and creativity from which it has only recently emerged.
Second, scrolling forward to 2012, whatever one wants to say about the state of the market (dire), or US bookselling in general (apparently in terminal decline), one commodity of which there is no dearth is talented – even great – American writers of all ages. Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, William Styron and Saul Bellow may be no more, but plenty of important writers have stepped forward to take their place. From Philip Roth, Paul Auster and Toni Morrison to Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson and Jeffrey Eugenides, these are good times to be reading the American novel.
Publishers may be struggling to launch new talent – that's true of the UK, too, by the way – but, backed up by a boom in writing schools and college literature courses, there's still a lot of talent breaking through. Names like Nathan Englander, ZZ Packer, Joshua Ferris, Nicole Krauss and Gary Shteyngart should give the literary community, said by some to be "reeling" from Pulitzer's disdain, the confidence to wake up, sniff the caffeine, and struggle out to another lunch at the Four Seasons. A nation whose novelists include Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon and Richard Ford has plenty still to celebrate.
Finally, in hindsight, Pulitzer's puzzling omission was a crisis waiting to happen. From the moment the judges nominated a shortlist that included a posthumous collage of a novel, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, who died in 2008, they were in trouble. To make matters worse, they chose some very strange finalists, including Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. But – do not despair – literary prizes are as vulnerable to errors of taste and judgment as any other competitive activity in the arts.
Our own Booker prize occasionally demonstrates what can go wrong when the jury lands itself with a dud shortlist. Last year, for instance, only Julian Barnes was remotely credible as a winner with his short novel The Sense of an Ending. Indeed, he duly went on to win, but only after the judges confronted the nightmare of awarding Britain's top book prize to a novel about two 19th-century cowboys, or worse, a promising debut thriller set in post-cold war Russia. When, on the big night last October, elegant Mr Barnes mounted the winner's rostrum, a universal "Eeek!" rapidly morphed into a comprehensive "Phew!"
Is there, then, anything to be done? Respectfully, I suggest that Pulitzer swallows a hefty slice of crow pie and takes home for careful study the Orange prize playbook. This UK-based, but globally significant award is not yet as ancient or distinguished as the Pulitzer, but the people who run Orange take a great deal of care – this year's shortlist is a model – to ensure that their nominations include six new fictions of distinction, by writers who are likely to show form over many years. Look at the list of Orange winners and you will see that, not only are there no duds, there are, among the runners-up, several writers who have already achieved greatness. Pulitzer, please take note.
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