The best American novel of the last year? There wasn't one, according to the judges of this year's Pulitzer prize for fiction, who announced yesterday that for the first time in 35 years the fiction award would be withheld.
Three novels were in the running to take the Pulitzer prize, the most prestigious in American fiction: Karen Russell's debut Swamplandia, about a family trying and failing to run an alligator wrestling theme park; David Foster Wallace's posthumously completed novel The Pale King, set in an Internal Revenue Service centre; and Denis Johnson's old American west novella Train Dreams.
The books were selected from 341 novels by the novelist Michael Cunningham and the critics Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson, and presented to the Pulitzer board, which took the decision not to give out the $10,000 prize this year. This was the 11th time the fiction award has been withheld, and the first time since 1977. Previous winners of the Pulitzer range from Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee and William Faulkner to John Updike, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison.
"The main reason [for the fiction decision] is that no one of the three entries received a majority and thus, after lengthy consideration, no prize was awarded," Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzers, told the Associated Press. "There were multiple factors involved in these decisions, and we don't discuss in detail why a prize is given or not given." Larson, chair of the award's jury, added: "The decision not to award the prize this year rests solely with the Pulitzer board."
"Quite frequently the Booker shortlist comes out and various critics pronounce upon it and say, 'None of these are any good,' but when you're a judge, that's absolutely, certainly, not an option," he said. "You go into it with the knowledge that some years are better than others. Some are very good, some are duff, and you just pray you get a good year."
The Pulitzer, though, is "different", according to Mullan. "Americans take it much more seriously. The Pulitzer is like an award saying, 'You will go down in posterity' – that's what they take it as being, therefore the panel sees it as its lofty mission to decide if there is anything worthy of that," he said. "The Booker, though – the people judging that see it much more pragmatically, and know there is a history of Booker prize winners and Booker shortlisted novels, some of which turn out to be really shrewd choices vindicated by time, and some which look like duff choices. There's a long history of books that were not even on the shortlist which 30 years later look like they deserved to win, which gives you a rueful realism about the process. It seems to me, the Pulitzer has come to stand for something different, and perhaps Americans are a bit more solemn about what these judgments mean."
The Pulitzer board did manage to find winners for other literary categories this year: Life on Mars by Tracy K Smith took the poetry prize, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by the late Manning Marable won the history award, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt won the non-fiction gong, and John Lewis Gaddis's George F Kennan: An American Life won the biography award.
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