The Pulitzer Prize jury in fiction could not decide which of the three finalists — Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, or David Foster Wallace’s posthumous Pale King — was least mediocre. No award this year, then. It was the tenth time that no Pulitzer in fiction has been handed out, the first since 1977. Janice Harayda has compiled a list of ten famous American novels that failed to win the Prize. Her choice for the worst snub? For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was passed over in favor of no award at all in 1941. In a poll conducted by the Saturday Review prior to the award announcement that spring, Hemingway outpolled Kenneth Roberts’s Oliver Wiswell by 21 to 6. The New York Times reported:
No explanation of their failure to select any novel for the award was made public by the [Pulitzer Prize] trustees. The terms of the award are ‘for a distinguished novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.’ It was pointed out that the final qualification might have weighed against Mr. Hemingway’s novel, which dealt with the Spanish Civil War.
No award was made in 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954 (when The Adventures of Augie March was ignored), 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974 (when the Pulitzer trustees refused to honor the jury’s selection of Gravity’s Rainbow), and 1977.
The best fiction of 2011 was John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. The Pulitzer’s failure to recognize any of them does not diminish their fascination and finesse.