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The Glittering Prize — Pulitzer, Orange & National Biography Awards Roundup

Chris Flynn May 03

What would the literary world do for gossip without prize shortlists and the various snubs associated with who’s on the list and who’s not? 2012 looks set to be another bumper year for controversy, kicked off this week with the announcement of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize, or in the case of the fiction category, how no one was good enough to be a winner.

Twenty-one Pulitzers are given out each year, in a variety of disciplines relating to journalism, arts, letters and fiction. The six categories in letters are drama, history, poetry, biography, general nonfiction and fiction, with judges announcing a shortlist of three finalists at the same time as the winner in each category. The victor takes out $10,000. Awarding the prizes is not simply a matter of finding a majority vote amongst the jury—the Pulitzer board has the power to overrule their decision, and has done several times in the past, notably in 1941 when Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was deemed too offensive and in 1974 when they overturned a unanimous jury decision to snub Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The fiction award was also withheld three years later, the last time this happened, until now.

A brief glance at previous fiction winners reveals the prize has not been awarded on average twice every decade, and that some surprising books missed out on the gong. (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was beaten by Richard Russo’s Empire Falls in 2002, for example.) This year’s jury was made up of Susan Larson, Maureen Corrigan and former winner Michael Cunningham. The finalists they decided upon were Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

A strange shortlist perhaps, with no sign of The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides or State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, all of which could have collected the prize with nary a peep of complaint from anyone. Patchett, an erudite, outspoken author who has her own independent bookstore in Nashville, was particularly put out and let loose a salvo in the New York Times as soon as the announcement was made.

“Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction. As a novelist and the author of an eligible book, I do not love this. It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one. Still, it is infinitely more galling to me as a reader, because there were so many good books published this year.”

Patchett goes on to savage the committee for not carrying out what she sees as its responsibilities towards good literature, at a time when the entire industry is under threat from Amazon, and the domination of pop-fiction titles such as The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey is turning readers away from more rewarding titles. Some will read her op-ed piece as a grumpy huff that may damage her chances as a future winner but at least she is sallying forth on a matter that renders most writers mute for fear of recrimination.

Patchett can take some solace in the fact she was shortlisted for another prominent award a day later, The Orange Prize. Having won the award ten years ago with Bel Canto, it is perhaps more likely to go this time to 84 year old Cynthia Ozick for Foreign Bodies, though with a shortlist including Anne Enright (The Forgotten Waltz), Georgina Harding (Painter of Silence), Madeline Miller (The Song of Achilles) and MAN Booker shortlistee Esi Edugyan (Half Blood Blues) it’s going to be a close race. The winner, announced on May 30th, takes home a juicy thirty thousand pounds.

Closer to home, the National Biography Award longlist has just been announced, with a shortlist arriving on May 1st and the winner receiving $25000 on May 14th at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. Some interesting and unexpected books in this list too, in particular Delia Falconer’s Sydney and Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. My personal favourite is David Walker’s excellent Not Dark Yet, in which the genial professor explores his family history with great humour whilst going blind. The hot favourite however, will undoubtedly be Mark McKenna’s An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark, which already has Victorian and Queensland Premier’s Awards under its belt, the last such title to receive a government supported award in the Sunshine State.



 

Comments

by Chris Flynn
03 May 12 at 9:34

The shortlist for the National Biography Award has since been announced. David Walker’s book has sadly missed out, so now it’s between the following titles: Tim Bonyhady’s Good Living Street, A.J. Brown’s Michael Kirby, Delia Falconer’s Sydney, Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, Mark McKenna’s An Eye for Eternity and Martin Thomas’s The Many Worlds of R.H. Mathews. My money’s still on the Mark McKenna book, but good luck to all!

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