Commentary Magazine


Topic: Pulitzer Prize

A Pitiful Pulitzer Pick

The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

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The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

Certainly that’s how Snowden sees it. In a statement typical of his nauseating and entirely unearned self-righteousness—released, it should be noted, from his current exile as an honored guest of Vladimir Putin’s police state—Snowden said: “Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government. We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”

Funny, if you didn’t know the context, you might think that Snowden is praising the efforts of dissidents in Russia who face jail terms or even death if they dare to tell the truth about how Putin represses dissent and mobilizes the public behind his dictatorial and expansionist agenda. But, no, of course Snowden wouldn’t dare to bite the hand that feeds him–even if that hand belongs to an increasingly repressive regime which labels as “traitor” anyone who dares question any aspect of the Kremlin’s agenda .

In reality, Snowden is heaping eye-rolling praise on his own efforts, and those of his journalistic collaborators, to cripple the legitimate and lawful intelligence gathering efforts of the NSA. The public, it goes without saying, had a role in government long before Edward Snowden came along. The public’s role in the U.S. government actually goes back to our Founding and has remained robust ever since. The public even has an important role in oversight of the intelligence community—a role assigned by our political system to Congress’s intelligence committees and the intelligence community’s in-house inspectors-general, not to twentysomething contractors with extreme an libertarian ideology and a messiah complex. 

For all his self-preening, Snowden did not actually disclose any activity by the NSA that was illegal or unauthorized; what he disclosed was wide-ranging collection efforts that had ample safeguards built in to prevent abuse. There is still no evidence that any of the intelligence-gathering activities of the NSA were directed for personal or political gain. 

Rather, these efforts have helped to keep the country safe from follow-on 9/11 attacks and other threats to our security. Now this important line of defense has been compromised, perhaps fatally, by Snowden’s illegal and unethical disclosures, most of which have focused not on intelligence gathering at home (which is admittedly controversial) but on intelligence gathering abroad in countries that regularly spy on the U.S. too—and which should not remotely be a cause for controversy unless you subscribe to Henry Stimson’s naïve and outdated conviction that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

There is nothing remotely brave about publishing the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government—an activity that is arguably protected by the First Amendment and that is unlikely ever to be prosecuted by a U.S. government which is rightly respectful of journalists’ rights. Nor is there anything remotely brave about disclosing those same secrets and then fleeing to exile in Russia rather than facing the consequences in a U.S. court. The word to describe such activities is not “brave” but, rather, “reprehensible.” And that is what the Pulitzer committee is rewarding.

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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.

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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Sorry, No Pulitzer Prize in Fiction This Year

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.

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.

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