Read It and Whine! Writers Don’t Need Prizes, They Need Ideas

The publishing industry's pursuit of prizes has led to an epidemic of novelistic navel-gazing.

eugenidesmarriageplot ricardo barros Read It and Whine! Writers Dont Need Prizes, They Need Ideas

Photo by Ricardo Barros

Woe betide our republic of letters! The shadowy culture arbiters who serve on the Pulitzer Prize board have withheld their favor from the field of American novels published in 2011. Booksellers, writers and critics have been up in arms ever since news of the non-award broke in mid-April. In a cri de coeur published in the New York Times’s op-ed pages, novelist Ann Patchett—who also runs an independent bookstore in Nashville—decried the committee’s abstention as a cause for “indignation” and, indeed, “rage.”

“I can’t imagine there was ever a year when we were so in need of the excitement the [fiction Pulitzer] creates in readers,” Ms. Patchett wrote.

It’s easy to miss, amid Ms. Patchett’s vehemence, the patent condescension that prize-dependent marketing visits upon American readers. In her distinctly arid account of readerly engagement, news of a prestigious laurel is what’s needed to generate “the buzz,” as she puts it, “that is so often lacking.” But the question is far better turned on its head: If an entire industry must rely on aloof prize boards to gin up sustained interest, then the trouble would seem to be the industry itself, rather than the prize boards or the consumers.

This was, after all, the identical argument that publishing executives trotted out in favor of Oprah Winfrey’s relentlessly middle-brow book club when Dame Oprah threatened its retirement, and when Jonathan Franzen sullied it with his sniveling high-brow criticisms: If we sacrifice Oprah’s market-making might, then surely the sky will fall! the collective wail then went; without patient tutelage from the sovereign of daytime talk, it was thought, Americans would revert to simply using books to squash bugs or prop open their outhouse windows. In reality, of course, publishers survived the withdrawn patronage of the Big O just fine—and far from being starved for reliable advice, readers can glean literary recommendations, opinions and argument from a wider range of sources than ever, thanks largely to the explosion of online literary sites.

Funnily enough, the brunt of Ms. Patchett’s indictment was being disproved even as it was published: Thanks to the coverage surrounding the non-awarding of the 2012 Pulitzer, sales of all three finalists werespiking; one of those titles, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, had even sold out in hardcover on Amazon. (My own informal canvass of half-a-dozen Manhattan bookstores last week likewise failed to turn up a single copy of Train Dreams.) These initial returns suggested two healthy correctives to the general publishers’ alarm. First, self-generated debate over literary judgments, even of the sort kicked up by this gnat-straining controversy, is at least as capable of sparking book sales as a ceremonial annual honor. And second, it’s generally far healthier for three books to occupy the center of said debate than a single fawned-over honoree—in pretty much the same way that it’s a far greater civic boon to have three political parties than one.

But there are other, more fundamental reasons to look askance at the business of award-driven fiction. The kind of literary consensus championed by Ms. Patchett tends to work as a de facto restraint on trade in the marketplace of ideas. That is to say, to the extent that readers look to prizes to arbitrate their own tastes, the already cloistered enterprise of literary fiction narrows further, to a charmed circle of writers publishing works by, for and about the types of people who pursue and win literary prizes. Take two highly praised novels of the past year that didn’t place as Pulitzer finalists but have earned lavish attention as prize-worthy works: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Both are studies in star-crossed individuation among a cloistered intellectual class; and as befits the earlier fictional traditions each novel cribs widely from, they hew closely to gender stereotype, with The Marriage Plot’s Madeleine Hanna embarking on a lifelong quest for a satisfying love relationship, and Mr. Harbach’s protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, finding metaphysical repose in old-fashioned male camaraderie and the pursuit of excellence on the baseball diamond. In a very different register, David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published and Pulitzer-nominated novel, The Pale King, projects the self-aware, multilayered quest for authentic experience onto the lumbering federal bureaucracy of the IRS, fragmenting the author’s own identity across the book’s unfinished pages.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with literate, knowing fiction revolving around the inner lives of articulate young achievers—and Messrs. Eugenides, Wallace and Harbach all render the central struggles of their protagonists with narrative assurance. Still, nearly all the action in these signature 2011 fictions takes place through a distracting scrim of writerly meditation on writing, which tends to leave readers feeling a bit obtrusive. Wallace’s corps of IRS auditors, toiling earnestly away behind their desks and pencils in the 1980s, are clearly stand-ins for the authors of fiction, casting about for some deeper sense of meaning amid an American entertainment public, that, much like the taxpaying clientele in The Pale King, has little use for their efforts. Mr. Harbach’s ballplayers likewise are perfecting a militantly counterutilitarian pride of craft—and are surrounded by a raft of allusions to the work of Herman Melville, for good measure. Meanwhile, The Marriage Plot is so steeped in obsessive MFA-style self-examination that it derives its title from Madeleine’s senior English thesis on the Victorian novel.

This isn’t the first time, by the way, that the Pulitzer committee has taken a flyer on the fiction award—the Prize has gone unclaimed on 10 prior occasions, the last time in 1977. And indeed, the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for fiction was widely perceived as a make-up laurel. In 1918, the committee gave the prize to the radical proletarian novelist Ernest Poole for a book called His Family. It was commonly understood, though, that the Pulitzer board was actually honoring Poole’s far better 1915 novel, The Harbor, which chronicled a journalist’s conversion to the working-class cause amid a general strike that paralyzed New York Harbor. As he ponders the fateful step toward radical commitment, Billy, the novel’s narrator, proposes forsaking his successful career lionizing the age’s industrial titans in favor of something in a more social realist vein. Seeking to sum up his mounting distress to his wife—the daughter of one of Billy’s model captains of industry—he conjures the appeal of his next big journalistic subject: “Poverty, that’s what it is, and I’ve always steered way clear of it as though I were afraid to look. I’ve taken your father’s point of view and left the slums for him and his friends to tackle when they get the time. I was only too glad to be left out. But … I’m beginning to wonder now why I shouldn’t get up the nerve to see for myself, to have a good big look at it all.”

His wife, Eleanore, takes emphatic exception to the plan. “Her voice was so sharp it startled me,” Billy recounts: “‘You’re different,’ she answered. ‘You leave poverty alone and force yourself to go on with your work. You’ve made a very wonderful start. You’ll be ready to take up fiction soon.’”