Monday, May 14, 2012

The Great Pulitzer Do-Over

Illustration by Grant Nider
This year, the Pulitzer Prize committee declined to award a prize for fiction. So we asked these eight experts to do it instead.
Sam Anderson: “The Pale King,” by David Foster Wallace
There are plenty of ways to make the case for David Foster Wallace’s “Pale King” as the winner of 2012’s lost Pulitzer Prize. We could frame it as basic literary justice: it’s absurd that the greatest writer of his generation won none of the major awards, and this was our last chance to fix that. (As all good D.F.W. fans will tell you, “Infinite Jest” should have won the Pulitzer and everything else back in 1997.) We could frame it as a sentimental gesture, a way to honor the legacy of a man who meant so much to American fiction, nonfiction and culture in general. But the strongest case for a D.F.W. Pulitzer is also the simplest: “The Pale King” was the best novel of 2011.
Yes, obviously, it wasn’t finished. We know this. But “The Canterbury Tales” wasn’t finished. Gaudi’s Sagrada Família wasn’t finished. Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” wasn’t finished. They’re still masterpieces: works that both contain and inflect the culture that spawned them, that speak in voices so archetypically idiosyncratic they seem to channel all the rest of us and yet also to stand completely on their own.
“The Pale King” does all of that. It contains some of Wallace’s very best writing — an amazing mixture of characters, genres, tones and styles. On top of which, this recent Pulitzer flap is basically what “The Pale King” is all about: America’s mania for tabulating, for making definite proclamations about things — like, say, the “best” novel published in a given year — that are by nature indeterminate.
Sam Anderson is critic at large for The Times Magazine.
Gregory Cowles: “The Year We Left Home,” by Jean Thompson
What kind of fiction wins the Pulitzer? The guidelines offered by the prize’s administrators — “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life” — are so general as to be useless, but a glance at previous winners gives a pretty good sense of what those terms mean to the committee that awards (or, ahem, withholds) the Pulitzer each year. “Distinguished fiction” typically means straightforward psychological realism set forth in stately prose: there’s not a lot of experimental comedy in the winner’s circle. “American life,” meanwhile, translates to stories, often spanning decades, that address sweeping national themes like race or immigration or assimilation or the frontier spirit. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Jane Smiley’s “Thousand Acres,” Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”: these are model Pulitzer novels.   

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