NEW YORK – Unable to choose a fiction winner, Pulitzer Prize officials made a decision guaranteed to satisfy no one.
For the first time in 35 years, no fiction award was given. Readers will have to look to other awards to decide which book to decide which book was the year’s most notable literary work. Booksellers will have to hope that other winners announced Monday, including the late Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, will attract some of the customers who might have sought the fiction winner.
Pulitzer judges had narrowed the field to three finalists, including David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” a novel assembled from notes he left behind at the time of his suicide in 2008. Also cited were Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia” and Denis Johnson’s novella “Train Dreams.”
“It’s wonderful that the Pulitzer nominating committee recommended `The Pale King’ to the judges,” the book’s editor, Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown and Company, wrote in an email. “Anything that brings readers to David’s brilliant novels, especially his great novel `Infinite Jest,’ is a good thing!”
“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,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. “There were multiple factors involved in these decisions, and we don’t discuss in detail why a prize is given or not given.”
Many greeted news about the fiction category as an unpleasant surprise.
“No fiction prize!” Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer winner in 1992 for “A Thousand Acres,” wrote on her Facebook page. “Not even to (Geraldine Brooks’) `Caleb’s Crossing!’ I did love that one.”
In an email to The Associated Press, Smiley added: “I can’t believe there wasn’t a worthy one. It’s a shame. But sometimes a selection committee really cannot agree, and giving no award is the outcome. Too bad.”
The Pulitzers have helped canonize such classics as John Updike’s “Rabbit at Rest” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” The awards also have the rare power to transform an obscure literary novel, like the 2010 winner, Paul Harding’s “Tinkers,” into an instant best seller.
“It’s the most significant award in American letters and it’s a shame the jury couldn’t find a work of fiction this year,” said Paul Bogaards, director of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf, which published “Swamplandia” and numerous past winners, including Smiley’s novel. “The Pulitzer makes sales. It’s a prize that can change the career trajectory of a writer.”
Susan Larson, chairwoman of the Pulitzer fiction jury, stressed that it wasn’t up to the jury to select the winner. Rather, she said, its job was to submit three finalists to the board. “The decision not to award the prize this year rests solely with the Pulitzer board,” she wrote in an email to the AP.
Fiction judges have withheld the Pulitzer 10 times before, according to Gissler, most recently in 1977. Among eligible books that have been bypassed: Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” James Dickey’s “Deliverance” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.”
Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play “Water by the Spoonful,” which centers on an Iraq war veteran’s search for meaning, won the Pulitzer for drama. Hudes previously wrote the book for the Broadway show “In the Heights,” which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008. Her play “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2007.
“Water by the Spoonful,” produced last fall at Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut, was called an “imaginative play about the search for meaning” by the Columbia University’s prize board on Monday.
“I’m still kind of in a daze about it but I’m very excited,” she said by phone from Middletown, Conn., where she is teaching a playwriting workshop to undergraduates at Wesleyan University. “I’m really delighted that something that was a little off the beaten path was considered.”
Marable, a longtime professor at Columbia, died last year at age 60 just as “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” was being released. Years in the making, the book was widely praised, although some of Malcolm X’s children objected to the troubled portrait Marable offered of the activist’s marriage to Betty Shabazz.
“It is so rewarding to see Manning’s work honored as a landmark achievement in the documentation of 20th century American history,” Wendy Wolf, associate publisher at Viking, said in a statement.
Another long-term project, John Lewis Gaddis’ “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” won the Pulitzer for biography. Gaddis is a Yale University professor and leading Cold War scholar who began work on the Kennan book in the early 1980s. The project was delayed by Kennan’s longevity. Kennan, a founding Cold War strategist and a Pulitzer winner, was in his 70s at the time he authorized the book. He asked only that Gaddis wait until after his death.
Kennan lived to be 101.
“He was a prize-winning author himself, so he would have been pleased,” said Gaddis, whose biography also won the National Book Critics Circle award.
“Life on Mars,” by Tracy K. Smith, won the poetry prize. The book was inspired in part by the death of her father.
“This was a book that felt really important to me as I was writing it because on one level I was processing my private grief,” she said. “In a lot of ways the book is an elegy for my father, who passed away three years ago.”
The general nonfiction prize was given to “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” Stephen Greenblatt’s telling of the 15th century rediscovery of a masterpiece from ancient Rome, the poet Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”). Lucretius was an Epicurean who rejected religion, believed that the world consisted of tiny particles and considered the fear of death unnecessary.
“This poem changed my life. But it also turned out to change all of our lives even though there’s no reason you or anyone else should have heard of it,” said Greenblatt, a Renaissance specialist who last fall won the National Book Award.
Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts” was honored for music. Puts’ debut opera, it was commissioned and premiered by the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis on Nov. 12, 2011.
“When I was composing it, I felt like it was in some ways easier than anything I’ve ever written,” Puts said. “It just felt natural for me, my first opera. I just thought as soon as I started: If nothing else, I wanted this to go well enough so I could write another opera.”