Serving as a Pulitzer Prize judge, particularly in the fiction category, sounds like one of those honors one is better off declining — like stepping up as a volcano virgin, taking first prize in a hitting-yourself-on-the-head contest, or being the guest of honor at a stabscotch marathon. You get the privilege of reading through a few hundred entered novels and short-story collections, and then wonder if the people in charge will simply ignore your award recommendations, as just happened this past April.
I got my first look at the downside of being a Pulitzer picker courtesy of novelist and Rutgers academic Julian Moynahan, who was on the fiction panel for 1982. He and his fellow jurors had waded through the mass of entries to arrive at three finalists: A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike. The Pulitzer Prize Board upended their recommendation and gave the award to Rabbit Is Rich instead of Stone’s extraordinary novel. (The linked New Yorker piece says the jurors give three equally ranked nominations, but Moynahan made it pretty clear the jurors wanted Robert Stone to get the award.)
“They gave Updike his gold watch,” Moynahan grumbled. I couldn’t argue with him. A Flag for Sunrise still packs plenty of punch three decades after release, while Rabbit Is Rich faded away as soon as the standard-issue raves from the critical amen corner took their place of honor in the recycling bin. As for this year’s non-award, I dunno. Giving the top prize to a posthumously published novel cobbled from the late David Foster Wallace’s working papers would have been a bit unseemly as well. The opening paragraph of The Pale King, which the author cites as a miracle of prose, strikes me as a lot of grad-student overwriting — it doesn’t need to be edited so much as weed-whacked.
Apparently, the other two finalists had problems of their own: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams was actually a Paris Review novella published in hardcover ten years after the fact, and Swamplandia! was tyro work in danger of being overpraised. Maybe no award was the best award after all.