Not Since 1977: No Pulitzer Awarded For Fiction

The Pulitzer Prizes were awarded Monday, but not for fiction. The field had been narrowed to three finalists. Lynn Neary talks with Pulitzer fiction juror Susan Larson about why no prize was awarded in that category.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Pulitzer Prizes went to journalists yesterday, in categories like local reporting, investigative reporting and breaking news. But no one was recognized for editorial writing. And for the first time since 1977, no one got the prize for fiction. A jury of three had submitted three fiction nominees to the Pulitzer Board, which ultimately decides the winner. Susan Larson was chair of that jury and she joins us now.

Good morning. Good to have you with us.

SUSAN LARSON: Good morning, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes has been quoted as saying that none of the three finalists in the fiction category received a majority of votes on the board, and that's why there was no prize for fiction. Are you surprised by that decision?

LARSON: Absolutely. We were all shocked. We were angry, and we were very disappointed. This is a lot of work.

NEARY: A lot of work. You read 300 books, I understand.

LARSON: We do. The books start arriving at the end of June, and over the course of the next six months, you receive about 300 books. And it's like being part of the smallest, most intense book club in the world. You read as if it were your religion.

NEARY: Yeah. Now, Dennis Johnson's "Train Dreams"; Karen Russell's "Swamplandia"; and "The Pale King," by the late writer David Foster Wallace, were the selections that you narrowed this field down to. Obviously, you believe they were all worthy contenders, right?

LARSON: Absolutely. I think we all would have been happy if any one of these books had been selected.

NEARY: Why? What made these such good books?

LARSON: Well, they're so different from each other. That's what's so fascinating; the range of fiction last year was really, quite astonishing. "Train Dreams" is so spare and elegant, and it takes those the myths of the American West and makes them come to life in unbelievably beautiful language. And Karen Russell's "Swamplandia" is such an American tall tale; so inventive, Southern Gothic. There's such a strong message about who we are.

And then, "The Pale King" - of course, that's a book where you can open it to any page and find some incredibly inventive piece of language. And it speaks to so much of how we live now - boredom, ennui; and it's IRS time, of course, so there is that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Now, did the Pulitzer Board explain its decision to the jury? Do you have any insight into why the board couldn't agree on these books?

LARSON: No, we really don't. Their deliberations are confidential. They don't give us any feedback. The only thing I do know is that, of course, all these books were considered. But there were a number of factors that came into play, and that it came right down to a simple majority was not achieved.

NEARY: Now, there are a lot of literary awards, but how important is the Pulitzer? What can it do for a writer's career?

LARSON: Oh, it catapults them into sales, prominence. I mean, I remember my friend Robert Owen Butler once said: I know now that my obituary will read Pulitzer Prize winner.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LARSON: You know, there is that staying power. It has incredible impact for book groups. And I think when you judge the Pulitzer, when you're a juror and you're looking for the nominees, you are reading with a special kind of responsibility. This is an honor, and a privilege, to do this work. And the whole time you're reading, you're reading very purposefully. You're looking for a great American novel. You're looking for a book that says something about who we are, and the way we live now, that captures something really important in this fictional moment.

NEARY: You know, this is a time when publishers are under a great deal of stress as they try and transition into the digital age. You know, bookstores...

LARSON: Oh, yes.

NEARY: ...are closing. What kind of message do you think this sends to the whole writing community - to writers, readers, everyone - that no award was given this year?

LARSON: Well, I think it's a mixed message, if you want to put the best possible spin on it. I mean, from my point of view, all these books were winners. Each one of us was rooting for a particular title, I'm sure. But we would've been happy if any one of these had been read. And our best hope now is that people will read three books instead of one. That's really the best we can hope for.

I don't think it sends a particular message. I don't think the Pulitzer Board meant to do that, certainly. There's so much. There's such a variety of fiction out there.

NEARY: Thanks so much for joining us this morning.

LARSON: All right. Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Pulitzer juror Susan Larson is a former book editor of the Times Picayune, and host of THE READING LIFE on member station WWNO.

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