And the Winner Is -- Nobody

The Pulitzer Prize is the only literary award I know of whose winner is not selected by a jury of his or her peers. Each year three qualified jurors are appointed and sent an enormous number of novels and story collections that have been deemed eligible for the award. At the end of months of reading and exchanging hundreds of emails, the jury is instructed to send the Board a list of three titles, each of which it considers worthy of the prize. These books, each with a brief blurb attached, must be listed in alphabetical order, the panel explicitly instructed not to indicate its preference among the three even though the members are likely (certainly on the several juries I was involved in) to have titles they especially favor. It is then left to the Board, made up almost entirely of individuals who, unlike the jury members, have neither written nor written about fiction, to choose one of the three. (You can get the list of Board members via Google.)

In a letter to the Editor, Oscar Hijuelos points out, quite reasonably, that the board has "its own criteria and tastes," but it strikes me as bizarre that individuals who are not professional writers or readers should be in a position to honor their own taste, trump the carefully arrived-at nominations of qualified jurors, and make no award. Why have a jury at all?

In the best of all worlds, the panel would be asked to submit just one name, the book that the jurors, whatever their differences, most admire, and, in my own experience, there usually is one. Robert Boyers is a very intelligent fellow, but in a letter to the Times he makes the curious suggestion that the jury submit not three but six books, thereby not solving but compounding "the problem" -- the board could select a jury's sixth choice (as if going for its third were not bad enough), or reject all six, thereby giving a slap in the face to twice as many writers. Moreover, it is naive to assume that there would be no appreciable difference between a panel's first choices and its fifth or sixth. I was on a jury, in fact, that despite the administrator's objection nominated only two books, unable to agree on a third that we felt to be on a par with the two we were recommending.

It interested me to read that this year's drama prize was given to a play that the jurors (five for that award) had only read, never seen. (John Lahr would describe that as giving a restaurant four stars on the basis of the menu.) I suppose that is not much different from poetry, which, after all, one is more likely to read than to hear. I can't imagine, however, a prize in music given solely on the basis of the score. Nor, for that matter, can I picture the members of any board rejecting the recommendations of a jury of composers -- that would be the sheerest chutzpah. But is picturing individuals who are not musicians (or even musically trained) rejecting the recommendations of a panel of composers really all that different from the phenomenon of Board members having more to say about a literary award than do those who make the nominations? Again, why have a jury at all? For the record, I cannot imagine the Board of the Guggenheim Foundation rejecting the recommendations of its panels and juries, different through the trustees' own tastes in fiction, say, or film, or choreography may be.

In a letter to the Times in which he says he is "ecstatic about the lack of a winner," a writer named Doug Magee, author of a book not nominated, objects to the idea that a book chosen for an award is automatically deemed "the best of the year." But this is fallacious. Everyone knows that juries are juries, that a book selected by one qualified group would not necessarily be selected by another. It is rare for the same novel to win the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award. A prize simply means that a group of serious readers and writers have singled out a particular book for an honor, not necessarily the best of the year but clearly a superlative work in the eyes of the selectors.

That Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve just won a Pulitzer in non-fiction after garnering a National Book Award demonstrates the exception, not the rule. The winners of other fiction awards, all chosen by qualified panels, will be in a charmed circle among this year's best. The pity is that none of the three fine books nominated by this year's hard-working Pulitzer panel will be found in that circle. But to look on the bright side, usually when a Pulitzer Prize is announced the two unsuccessful nominees get virtually no notice at all. At least this year, even if for a terribly wrong reason, all three titles have received a good deal of attention. And finally, while I have your ear (or eyes), let me recommend Russell Banks's Lost Memory of Skin, which I may well have championed had I been on this year's panel, though not having read all of the eligible novels I cannot say that for certain.

I close with Emily, who knew everything:

Fame is a bee
It has a song--
It has a sting--
Ah, too, it has a wing.