Close, But No Pulitzer: How Three Novels Lost Out on This Year’s Fiction Prize

The three works that lost out on this year’s Pulitzer Fiction Prize: the dazzling debut Swamplandia! By Karen Russell; posthumously published The Pale King by David Foster Wallace; and noteworthy novella Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

A rare occurrence in Pulitzer history took place this week, with the panel electing not to award any of its three finalists the prestigious prize for a work of fiction. Though not unheard of, the decision is uncommon, the last instance of which took place 35 years ago.

Says Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, “This is the 11th time this has happened in the fiction category; the last time was 1977. It’s unusual, but it does occur.”

For any unfamiliar with the Pulitzer selection process, who may be scratching their heads as to how a prize such as this could go unclaimed, here is some insight:

A jury of three (made up of novelist and Pulitzer winner Michael Cunningham, critic for NPR’s Fresh Air Maureen Corrigan, and former book editor of The Times-Picayune Susan Larson) read a whopping 300 novels each in only six months. Their next task was to whittle this massive number down to just three titles that would be reviewed and put to a vote by a second panel of 20 academics. The majority winner there would, theoretically, take home the prize.

But a majority vote was never reached on any of the three novels, hence no Pulitzer. It’s sparked quite the outrage across the twitterverse, though perhaps none feel quite as annoyed as Cunningham, Corrigan, and Larson (save, perhaps, the authors themselves). Corrigan has said:

“I can safely say that anger and surprise/shock, and just sort of feeling this is an inexplicable decision on the part of the board—that really characterizes, I think, the way all three of us feel… The obvious answer is to let the [jury] pick. We’re the people who have gone through the 300 novels. All the board is asked to do is to read three top novels that we’ve given to them… In fact, what’s happened today is a lot of the articles and blog posts have gotten it wrong—they’ve been blaming the three of us!”

She and Cunningham have publicly come forward suggesting the selection process be changed.

The publishers of the three chosen novels are also, reportedly, enraged, fearing the loss of a post-Pultizer sales bump. Although, it might be argued that the books are getting much more attention now than they might’ve had the selection gone smoothly.

What’s your opinion on this no-win year? Do you agree with the Huffington Post’s report that “this year, nobody was good enough”? Which novel, in your opinion, should have taken home the prize?

From Pulitzer history: another occasion when the panel decided not to give out the award for Fiction involved a famous but controversial title. In 1941, Hemingway’s masterpiece For Whom the Bell Tolls was deemed too offensive, and the Pulitzer Prize was again withheld.