no pulitzer for swamplandia

For the first time since 1977, the Pulitzer jury has declined to award a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. The decision was a mistake, a bad one.

Part of the problem may be the nomination process that determines three “finalists.” The finalists were uninspired choices. Denis Johnson can hardly win for his XXL short story Train Dreams after winning for his Tolstoy-sized war novel, Tree of Smoke. The prize would be going to the author, not the book. As many of you undoubtedly know, David Foster Wallace committed suicide before being able to finish The Pale King; it’s not even the book it would have been, had he lived, and that would still have been a bitter pill. Like his other work, it is overly conceptual, and a testament to Wallace’s frustrated, excessive ambitions.

Still, they could have given it to Karen Russell. I don’t know why the Pulitzer judges overlooked Teju Cole, Amy Waldman, Tea Obreht, and America’s other young, brilliant writers, but Swamplandia! is a perfectly decent book nonetheless. Yes, it has some contemporary faults. It is too cute — it’s about a family living in an isolated, nearly bankrupt alligator-wrestling theme park. It’s occasionally prone to magical realism, which has become the laziest feature of contemporary storytelling. Like I said, Cole would have been a better choice; regardless, Swamplandia! is funny and the style is distinctive. The characters are full of believable contradictions, like the timid younger sister who becomes a wild, prophetic medium. Russell  achieves a lot of different voices within a single family, and she’s put a lot of her spunky self into the protagonist.

Obviously, “it’s not bad” is not a terribly convincing argument, but about half of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction have been either only that good (A Thousand Acres), or actually bad (The Executioner’s Song). One of the three jury members, Michael Cunningham, won for The Hours, a piece of middle-of-the-road, name-dropping feminism that was way too easy. By now, The Hours has been totally overshadowed by The Virgin Suicides. Give Karen Russell $10,000 and that silver medal!

It’s a rough moment for the novel. The bestsellers are trivial — The Hunger Games, and 50 Shades of Grey, which was originally written as a piece of BDSM Twilight fan-fic. Even the bestselling works of literary fiction, such as Harbach’s Art of Fielding, are trending toward middlebrow. There’s nothing fatal about taking a sabbatical in order to fix the process, so that the jurors aren’t facing three lame choices. But that’s not happening — so, in that case, now would have been a great time to remind the nation that Suzanne Collins is writing for 12-year-olds. Her novels aren’t bad for adults, aside from the buried political allegory, but they are extremely dull compared to good literary fiction. By remaining aloof, the Pulitzer doesn’t uphold a high standard. It emboldens a low one.