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A Bad Day in Brooklyn

If the financial industry operates in our society like a ruthless drug dealer, then the book publishing industry is like a superannuated old biddy, once grand and imperious, now losing her faculties and prone to ill-advised dispensations of large sums of money. She sort of means well, though, so it’s best to kiss up to her and pretend not to notice her decrepitude, bless her heart.

Hence the uproar this spring. When the arbiters of publishing-industry taste were inexplicably denied that ne plus ultra of ass-kissing opportunities, the annual awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, they all rose up in comically jowly dudgeon as though someone had slapped granny. Publishers and booksellers—an ultra-civilized cadre not given to extreme displays of temper—were, as the New York Times reported, “incensed.”

Never mind that it’s not so uncommon for the Pulitzer board to beg off from awarding the fiction prize. Such abstentions have occurred ten times in the prize’s ninety-four-year history; the last time was in 1977, to remarkably few sententious hues and cries from the literary overclass.

And anyway, it was far from the case this year that the literary scene was subject to complete, loutish neglect. The Pulitzer fiction jury shortlisted three novels—Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson—for prospective acclaim, but, for reasons unspecified by the prize administrator, none wound up with the $10,000 prize and attendant career boost. This unexpected turn of events, to judge by the incoherent emotions issuing from the literati, signaled nothing less than a plunge straight back into pre-Enlightenment darkness.

For it wasn’t merely disappointing that neither Karen Russell, nor Denis Johnson, nor the late David Foster Wallace was honored. It was, averred Pulitzer juror Maureen Corrigan, “terrible news.” (To which the only sensible response is: how enviable a life in which the absence of a book plaudit qualifies as terrible news!) “We were invited to serve on the jury because we’re recognized as being, in some way, literary experts,” Corrigan wrote in the Washington Post. “Why, then, turn the final decision over to a board primarily composed of non-literary folk?”

The no-Pulitzer uproar was absolutely the rage of the literary experts. Corrigan—a book critic for NPR and a lecturer at Georgetown University—shared judging honors with Susan Larson, the former books editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Michael Cunningham, who’d brought home a Pulitzer of his own for his 1999 opus The Hours. In defending the experts, the New Yorker ran an excruciatingly condescending blog post depicting the Pulitzer board as vacant idiots who’d rather watch cat videos, read The Hunger Games, and throw Mad Men parties than consider the oh-so-worthy fiction shortlist. In the New York Times, meanwhile, Ann Patchett—novelist, bookstore owner, and “author of an eligible book”—lamented the publicity, and therefore book sales, stolen by the Pulitzer board’s abstention.

Patchett and her fellow experts just wished for the Pulitzer fiction prize to go to someone, anyone, even against a backdrop of dissent or disagreement. If you take literary prizes at face value, her plea looks curious: rather than reward merit, however subjectively that quantity must be perceived, the prize should have been awarded to any eligible nominee, just because—why, just because it’s apparently an indispensible means of getting readers “excited” about books. But what’s at stake is the notion that “non-literary folk” like and appreciate the literary establishment’s own novels, a notion upheld so long as someone wins. Not giving the prize to anyone—well, that ruins the whole pretense.

The simultaneous expression of insecurity and entitlement underlying Patchett’s non-argument (which, to be fair, reads as if written in the heat of the moment) brings to mind an Ivy League undergraduate who cannot begin to comprehend why her mere presence in a classroom hasn’t automatically led to an A. Or perhaps more fittingly, given the scale of market influence sought by the prize cartel, Patchett’s pique is redolent of the bankers’ expectation of bonuses regardless of performance—and bankers are a class of philistine to which most literary taste-arbiters would be horrified to find themselves compared.

Of course, rewarding merit and defending literary standards are laudable endeavors. But the trouble today is that judgments of literary value are decidedly arbitrary, none more so than the awarding of the Pulitzer. It’s a peculiarity of the Pulitzer that the board imposes no restrictions on the field of books that can be nominated; you can even nominate your own book, so long as you’re American and can fork over the $50 entry fee. Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic and former Pulitzer fiction juror, remembers the “hundreds and hundreds” of nominees, “including many self-published novels with titles like ‘The Bikinis of Alpha Centauri,’ most of which read as if they’d been run through Google Translate into Farsi and then run back again into English before being committed to print.” So presumably Maureen Corrigan and her co-jurors sifted through and discarded books they hadn’t heard of, paying closest attention to those already given the seal of approval by their peers.

Other literary awards have more restrictive criteria: the National Book Award, one of the most prestigious and insidery prizes, accepts only books nominated by publishers, and while any number of titles can be submitted, an imprint might see fit to nominate only one or two authors—especially if a contractual agreement to do so was negotiated during a book’s sale. A novel like the surprise 2010 NBA winner, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, qualified for consideration only because it was published by the tiny McPherson press. If Gordon’s agent had placed it with a higher-profile fiction house, such as FSG or Riverhead or Norton, bigger, splashier titles that were calculated to be more award-friendly would have shunted it aside. Only occasionally does an interesting and fresh work happen to slip through, a notorious British example being Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which all the major publishers rejected before the Scottish house Canongate picked it up. Once published, Martel’s novel won the prestigious Man Booker Prize and became an international sensation. “If Martel had been published by one of the big houses,” said veteran London editor Dan Franklin at the time, “I guarantee the book would never have been entered.”

With no clear standards and a declining product to push, the publishing world’s gatekeepers have been woefully incompetent when it comes to the most basic component of their industry’s mission: identifying novels that will win either popularity or critical acclaim or, even rarer, both. The storied market-building power of the prize cartel, in other words, fails quite flatly on its own terms. Today’s literary landscape is littered with striking illustrations, far too many to enumerate, but several recent Hollywood films—The Help, Water for Elephants, and We Need to Talk About Kevin—were adapted from runaway best sellers that drew repeated rejections from people who even now remain at large, making random, arbitrary, hit-or-miss decisions on their employers’ behalf. Some have probably won bonuses and promotions—again, in the ignoble tradition of the money-grubbing lords of Wall Street whom the literary world professes to scorn.

And needless to say, once a novel becomes a critical or commercial hit, publishers will clamor to acquire the rights for it, as well as for anything vaguely similar. (How many editors, right this second, are resolutely wading through stacks of inept S&M stories thanks to the wild success of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book none of them would have dreamed of publishing?) The much-admired novelist Tom McCarthy, whose debut, Remainder, was first published by a small art press in Paris, supplied a singularly apt response when enthusiastic critics and readers made the novel a success and the publishers who’d initially rejected it came back with offers: “Well fuck off: it’s the same book as it was two years ago.”

Clauses in literary contracts are not the only form of hedging against the arbitrariness of the prize dispensation. Today, writers of serious fiction who hope to publish via mainstream channels must write in the prestige-fiction genre and pledge their personal existence to the overadministered hinterland of MFA programs, grants and fellowships, lit journals, and the special section of purgatory that is a writers’ colony—an interconnected and manifestly anti-meritocratic system that bars outsiders from playing the game by denying that it is a game. All three Pulitzer fiction finalists attended MFA programs: David Foster Wallace graduated from Arizona, Denis Johnson from Iowa, and Karen Russell from Columbia. Russell was taught by writing division chair Ben Marcus, who has professed himself “mystified” by the negated Pulitzer. (Funnily enough, “mystified” is how “non-literary folk” often feel about Marcus’s novels, which are published by Knopf.)

The prestige-fiction genre perpetuates itself by chronically floating an inflated valuation on the credentials market. In other words, it depends on the same cartel logic of leveraged competition that enabled companies like Countrywide to prosper on the exclusively, well, fictional returns of mortgage-backed securities. One NYU MFA candidate named Anelise Chen neatly summed up the self-regarding isolation of the prestige-fiction genre in an essay published at The Rumpus, where she compared the distribution of MFAs between the top five hardback novels on the New York Times’ best-seller list and the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list, which functions as an industry tip sheet for advance-worthy young writers. Not surprisingly, the fiction best-seller list included no one with an MFA, while the “20 Under 40” roster included virtually no one without an MFA.

So maybe a prime marketing opportunity for a single author was lost when nobody received this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But on closer scrutiny, Ann Patchett’s complaint that the absence of a Pulitzer fiction prize is bad for books has it backward. If the journalists and academics on the board couldn’t agree on the merits of the contenders in spite of such concerted pressure to hymn the genius of someone, anyone, then there’s no reason to imagine the public could, either. And it’s more harmful to long-term sales of serious fiction if “non-literary folk” buy the officially declared best novel of the year, only to discover that their expectations diverge sharply from the book officially endorsed by literary experts. A similarly counterproductive process occurs with the cronyist tradition of the jacket blurb: a bookstore browser might alight upon a novel that’s hyped, in the dashed-off phrasing of a current literary wunderkind, as the novelistic equivalent of a three-hour orgasm. Once our innocent customer has assessed her readerly pleasure as being more akin to an averagely satisfying sneeze, she won’t attribute the discrepancy to the blurber and the author sharing an agent—she’ll simply think twice about buying highly touted literary novels in the future.

What, then, is an ailing industry to do? Although I’d never be so crass as to suggest that book world dramas should be manufactured for publicity, U.S. literary awards might as well take inspiration from the U.K. prizes and enlist celebrities as judges. (This year’s Booker panel is graced by the floppy-haired gravitas of Lord Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey!) Celebrifying the awards would kill two birds with one stone: the media would cover the proceedings with less duty and more enthusiasm, and there would be horrified chatter about the apocalyptic inappropriateness of it all. Who knows, maybe George Clooney or Angelina Jolie could be persuaded to take a break from ending third-world poverty to glance through a year’s worth of “coruscating,” “fearless,” and “necessary” novels.

Or, as an alternative to that headlong embrace of the literary award scene for the superficial enterprise it is, publishers could broaden the terms by which books and authors are evaluated, perhaps (and I know this is radical) by elevating the words on the page over the credentials on the résumé. In that brave new world, prizes would no longer be a means of conferring legitimacy—and publishing types would have to look elsewhere to document their sense of cultural neglect and grievance. Then, at last, we might see some real creative writing.