Schemes of Stupidity: On The Pulitzer Prize
BYT at large | Apr 25, 2012 | 11:30AM |

All words: Abbas A

“The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.”
William H. Gass

There is a large group of the American educated class who firmly believes that they can write a novel. Everyone believes that they have at least one book in them. The democratization of the art has done this to everyone, since everyone who possesses the education (and lots of people who don’t) honestly believes that they are always on the periphery of success, and soon their genius will be rewarded. Perhaps this is a distinguishing characteristic of modern American life, the belief, both conscious and subconscious, that the work they do will be rewarded accordingly by whoever it is that determines such awards.

For this reason, and many others, we see the proliferation of the writer’s workshop, where an elder statesman / stateswoman of American letters offers young, bright-eyed writers proscriptive advice on how to sculpt the perfect story, chapter, novel, poem, essay, etc. And what is worse than the workshop, the idea that the art you want to create must be fixed in some necessary way, is that people often pay for the privilege to be talked down to by a famous writer.

As art has become democratized, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what is good from what is bad. This distinction is of primary importance, precisely because it is of no importance in a meaningful way. Since we are always connected, dialed into the matrix of information which exists within the very air we breathe, we are unable to judge the importance of anything, whether it be a moral situation or the quality of a particular piece of artwork.

Luckily, we’ve long predicted this overflow of information, and we’ve had a system in place to determine what was good from what was bad in the area of literature. This is a complex system of prizes, fellowships, and awards which become self-fulfilling once one prize is unlocked. The Pulitzer Prize exists at the top of this pyramid scheme of stupidity. The structure of the pyramid is determined by the people who make it up, self-appointed “deciders,” as David Foster Wallace puts it, who winnow down the unmanageable to the reasonable.

The reality is that this self-appointed group rewards only the fast disappearing genre of literary fiction, which has moved from New York to the small college towns where many MFA programs reside. This group has the gall to determine for you what the best book is in any given year. This closely mimics the structure of fascism, and it would be no surprise if it was found out that many committee members dressed as Hilter, Mussolini, and/or Franco for consecutive Halloweens.

In my estimation, “real” literature, which means only the literature that suits my taste and no one elses, since my taste is paramount to this discussion, is defined by its opposition to such awards. Never would it reward a book like The Tunnel or The Recognitions. It rewards only those works which it can find that are suitable to be sold. The prize is just an advanced form of advertising, made objective by the presence of people who, in truth, shouldn’t judge anything.

The Pulitzer Prize, as Ann Patchett’s article in The New Yorker attests to, is little more than advertising for the dying cottage industry of literary fiction. Patchett, who owns a bookstore herself in Nashville, mentions that it is insulting to have a book published this year and for no award to be given. Patchett’s interest in the award is twofold, since she is both author and bookstore owner, and her primary interest is selling books. But her ego has taken a hit because the prize committee confirmed her irrelevancy by ignoring her. This is the death of the author, having a so-called legitimate organization ignore your work, and ignore your need for a livelihood by denying the last mechanism which can actually sell books.

But books do not need awards to thrive. There will be many books written and sold this year, and this controversy will be forgotten, as new authors will be named finalists for one pointless prize after another.

Perhaps we can hope for a “chosen one,” the author who will eschew fame and try to destroy the award by not accepting it. Or perhaps this author will accept the award, and with the award money, start an anti-award society, whose sole purpose is to rail against any and all awards. The likelihood of this happening is as small as the chance that next year the Pulitzer will not be given.

The real implication of the prize committee’s decision is that the American Dream is truly at its end. Every aspiring author believes that they deserve a Pulitzer, and every day they practice an acceptance speech as they get out of the shower. No longer are we assured a pointless prize to award mostly pointless work, just like we are no longer assured owning a house, a stable marriage, a white picket fence, and two and a half kids. The award has revealed itself to be illusory, like the rest of the American Dream.