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Maybe the Pulitzers Ran Out of Writers

In the aftermath of the Pulitzer Prize board’s inability to give out a fiction award yesterday, the three jurors who selected the three finalists have got mad, and the critics have been speculating like mad. My own theory is that the Pulitzers ran out of writers.

Literary prizes have little to do with literary merit (and the little gets less every year). They are just another medium of book advertising. The best evidence is how few books win more than one of the big three awards — Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle — in any one year. The last novel to be honored with both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award was E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News nearly two decades ago in 1994. Only six works of fiction have been dual winners:

1955    William Faulkner, A Fable
1966    Katherine Anne Porter, Collected Stories
1967    Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich
1983    Alice Walker, The Color Purple
1994    E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

It is less unusual for the National Book Critics Circle Award to go to a book that wins another prize the same year. Nine times since the award was established in 1976 it has gone to a book that also won another laurel:

1979    John Cheever, Stories (also won Pulitzer)
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich (also won National Book Award and Pulitzer)
1991    John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (also won Pulitzer)
1992    Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (also won Pulitzer)
1993    Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (also won National Book Award)
2004    Edward P. Jones, The Known World (also won Pulitzer)
2005    Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (also won Pulitzer)
2008    Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (also won Pulitzer)
2011     Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (also won Pulitzer)

If anyone were to draw up a list of the 14 most striking and distinctive and influential American books of the past six decades, however, very few of the titles on these two lists would be on it. The lack of multiple awards is significant, but even more telling is how badly the multiple awards correlate with lasting reputations.

The dirty little secret of literary prizes is that they must not be given out more than once to the same writer. Saul Bellow won the National Book Award three times (1954, 1965, 1971); William Faulkner, twice (1951, 1955); William Gaddis, twice (1976, 1994); Bernard Malamud, twice (1959, 1967); Wright Morris, twice (1957, 1981); Philip Roth, twice (1960, 1995); and John Updike, twice (1964, 1982). But no American writer who has begun his or her career since 1976 — no one belonging to the “boomer” generation or after — has won more than once.

The Pulitzer Prize appears to have an unwritten policy forbidding repeat winners. The last writer to win the more than once was John Updike, who took home the Prize for Rabbit Is Rich in 1982 and then again for Rabbit at Rest nine years later. Here is a complete and unabridged list of the American fiction writers who have won the Pulitzer more than once: William Faulkner, Booth Tarkington, John Updike.

The rationale for the Pulitzer’s unwritten prohibition against repeat winners becomes clear when you examine the cover of Steven Millhauser’s new volume of stories, We Others:

Given Millhauser’s genius for short fiction, We Others should have been a serious contender for the Prize. (It was Janice Harayda’s choice for the Pulitzer That Wasn’t.) But the reason it wasn’t considered is obvious. Millhauser captured top honors in 1997 for Martin Dressler, making it possible for Knopf to fill a box on his grid-like cover with “winner of the Pulitzer Prize” — an honor that goes on the same level as the title. Winning a second Prize adds nothing to what Knopf can do to sell Millhauser’s books. The Pulitzer is an advertising sticker to slap on a writer’s dust jacket. And one sticker is all it takes.

If writers can only win the Pulitzer once, though, and if few books commandeer more than one trophy per year, the store of American fiction writers is going to be exhausted sooner rather than later. More than anything else, that may explain why no Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded this year.


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