The Story of the Pulitzer that Never Was

On The New Yorker‘s Page Turner blog, novelist Michael Cunningham opens the curtains on the Pulitzer Prize process:

We were, all three of us [jurors], shocked by the board’s decision (non-decision), because we were, in fact, thrilled, not only by the books we’d nominated but also by several other books that came within millimeteres of the final cut. We never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a prize onto. We agreed, by the end of all our reading and discussion, that contemporary American fiction is diverse, inventive, ambitious, and (maybe most important) still a lively, and therefore living, art form.

And yet, no prize at all in 2012.

How did that happen?

The board’s deliberations are sealed. No one outside the board will ever know why they decided to withhold the prize.

I did, however, learn a good deal about how short lists are formed, how “best” books are selected—a process that had hitherto been mysterious to me.

Cunningham’s post is the first of two, and offers an interesting look into how the three finalists were selected out of 300 books, before being sent to the Pulitzer Board for nothing to happen.

The post also intrigues with descriptions of the books that came close, but were eventually eliminated:

A ravishingly beautiful, original novel went down when one of us pointed out that, lovely as the book was, Toni Morrison had already told a version of that particular story, to similarly powerful effect, in a single chapter of “Beloved.”


A third fell under the wheel (and this one was particularly heartbreaking to all of us) when we reluctantly acknowledged that although it was wonderfully written and fabulously inventive, its central love story, while moving, was insufficiently complicated and a bit sentimental; that it failed to depict the body of darker emotions that are integral to love: moments of rage, disappointment, pettiness, and greed, to name a few. All three of us wished love to be as simple as the author imagined it to be, but we acknowledged that love, as far as we could tell, is not only not simple, but that part of its glory is its ability to survive incidents of rage, disappointment, and etc.

Any guesses on which books these are?

Read the full post at Page Turner.

– Michael Moats

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