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Outcry over absent fiction Pulitzer shames literary world

Why absence of a Pulitzer in fiction is a good thing

The Pulitzer Board’s announcement on Monday that it would award no fiction prize this year ignited shock and anger in literary circles. Writers, publishers, booksellers, critics — even the jury members who selected the three fiction finalists — all decried the decision, calling it a slap in the face of serious fiction and a blow to an industry already struggling against flagging interest and falling sales.

Yet whatever went on behind closed doors at Columbia University, where the prizes are administered, all we know is this: The 18 voting members of the board were unable to reach the majority decision required to bestow the prize. In other words, the panel’s failure is not necessarily indicative of a low regard for this year’s crop of novels and short story collections.

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It doesn’t matter, the lamenters say: The public is sure to read it that way. And from within the book world rallying cries have emerged in tones ranging from insouciant to defensive to corrective. The Huffington Post invited readers to vote in its hastily established Hufflitzer Prize for Fiction, “[b]ecause we know that, when it comes to selecting books, you’re smarter than the Pulitzer Board.” Laura Miller, in Salon, delicately suggested the problem may have arisen from the Pulitzer Board members’ relative lack of “familiarity with the literary world.” Ann Patchett, in The New York Times, came up with five additional books published this year that she proposes as Pulitzer-worthy.

Such responses are, at a glance, gallant: a circling of the wagons around a newly endangered cause. But they don’t address the deeper issue that may lie at the core of people’s discomfiture. As an editor friend remarked, mulling her own reaction, “I feel oddly ashamed.”

The Pulitzer Board does seem to have shamed its own jury by declining to approve any of its finalists, and in turn to have shamed all of American letters, or at least its fiction output over the past year. (I should disclose: That output includes a novel of mine.) But the comment resonated with me for another reason. Shame is endemic to the entire system of meting out prizes for creative endeavors. While awards are meant to commend, and thus to nurture art, they also hurt the very thing that is essential to making it.

Prizes, by definition, are reductive (they whittle nominees to lists of finalists and then winners). Art, by its nature, seeks to fathom, and justly render, complexity. Prizes are inherently divisive (they split the exalted from the rest). Art seeks inclusivity; it yearns to connect. As Richard Wilbur has said, “to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go toward making an assertion of the unity of all things.”

Prizes help to commodify art. (It’s no coincidence that a major theme of the outcry has been the specter of lost revenue — Pulitzer winners tend to enjoy a spike in sales.) While I won’t claim writers don’t need to be able to buy food and ink and stuff, whenever the creation of art bends toward pleasing the marketplace, something vital is lost. “Art is not business!” proclaims the Bread and Puppet Theater’s Cheap Art Manifesto. “Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you.” Or as Lewis Hyde writes in “The Gift,’’ “a work of art is a gift, not a commodity … a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.”

Prizes pretend that art can be ranked within a hierarchy. They suggest ridiculous formulations, like, “Which belongs on a higher rung, ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ or ‘Binocular Vision?’ ’’ Those of us called to the storytelling trade do not comport with such tidy, vertical parlance. We are in the habit of feeling our way through unruly, fluid spaces using language that expands and contracts, pivots and ricochets, complies and subverts and transforms. “Works of art,” wrote Rilke, “are of an infinite loneliness, and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.”

This very understanding constitutes art’s true prize, one that is wholesome, indelible, and available to us all.

Leah Hager Cohen’s most recent novel is “The Grief of Others.” She can be reached at lcohen@holycross.edu.

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