Rupert Cornwell: Pulitzers deliver slap in the face for the Great American Novel

Out of America: The judges have decided not to make an award for the best work of fiction – literary folk are not happy

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Are we witnessing the calculated murder of the great American novel? You might think so, to judge from the hullabaloo last week after the Pulitzer board announced it wasn't awarding its annual prize for fiction.

The Pulitzers, in case you didn't know, are the country's most celebrated awards for journalism and literature. To get one is akin to winning sainthood and the lottery at the same time. A Pulitzer brings both prestige and a hefty boost in sales and speaking fees to its winners. For newspapers they are badges of honour, the ultimate proof of seriousness in a profession that already takes itself extremely seriously. As for the fiction prize, its winners form a roll call of 20th-century American literature that includes Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Bellow, Mailer and Updike. Alas, 2011 will not be adding to that number.

To be fair, it's not the first time this has happened since the Pulitzers, a bequest of the crusading newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, began in 1917. But the literary world is hopping mad, and understandably so.

One reason is a sheer sense of anti-climax. Imagine the uproar if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said it wasn't handing out a best picture award one year. The Pulitzers are the Oscars of the writing world. You don't have to believe the winners of such contests are actually the best.

More broadly, this has been a depressing year for the traditional book industry. Novels as a genre may be thriving: of the roughly 250,000 titles published annually in the US, a fifth are fiction. But after the the demise of the country's second largest bookstore chain Borders, the unstoppable advance of Amazon, and now a US government lawsuit accusing several major publishers of colluding to fix ebook prices, the Pulitzer announcement has added insult to injury.

Precisely how the non-decision came about is impossible to say; decisions of the board, comprising 20-odd eminent journalists and academics, are as shrouded in mystery as those of the College of Cardinals. But a special three-person jury had spent six months considering more than 300 novels and collections of short stories before submitting a shortlist of three to the board. Last week, however, only black smoke emerged from this conclave.

Understandably, Maureen Corrigan, critic in residence at Georgetown University and one of the three judges, was furious. A "debacle", she fumed in The Washington Post. The jurors had been chosen because they were deemed literary experts – so why was the final decision taken by a bunch of non-experts?

All we have is the Pulitzer statement, saying merely that the board could not reach a majority on any of three finalists. It is possible, of course, that its members split into three factions that refused all compromise. More likely they didn't consider any of the contenders up to scratch. But if so, they could have politely requested a revised list of finalists.

And in truth, the nominees were a little unusual. One of them, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, unfinished when the author died in 2008, was completed by his editor. Another, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, is the debut work of a 29-year-old, while the third, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, is a novella that runs to just 116 pages. Nor, strictly speaking, is it new. Train Dreams first appeared in The Paris Review, an American literary magazine, a decade ago before being published in book form in 2011.

But these peculiarities are hardly grounds for disqualification. If unfinished works are unacceptable, then Thucydides's The History of the Peloponnesian War, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Coleridge's opium-fuelled fragment "Kubla Khan" – to name but three – would be outside the canon of world masterpieces.

Nor is youth a problem. Swamplandia! has had fantastic reviews, and one-hit wonders are no more the exception for authors than for rock bands. Take Harper Lee, who won with To Kill a Mockingbird in 1961, when she was only five years older than Karen Russell. It was her first and only book, yet is indubitably a masterpiece. And if short doesn't cut the mustard, remember that when Ernest Hemingway finally won, it was for The Old Man and the Sea, all of 127 pages long, in 1953. But the Pulitzers are not infallible. Genius does not come along every year, and sometimes it is overlooked. Like Harper Lee, J D Salinger was a one-hit wonder, yet The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951 and a "great American novel" if ever there was one, didn't win the Pulitzer. The prize went to Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, a worthy enough winner, but lacking the defining quality of Salinger.

The most glaring omission of all has to be The Great Gatsby, widely accepted as the finest American novel of the 20th century. But the fiction Pulitzer for that year, 1925, went to Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, who later became the first American Nobel laureate for literature.

Lewis's special distinction, however, is that he turned down the honour. All prizes were dangerous, he wrote, and especially the Pulitzer one for fiction, where novels were judged not on merit, "but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment". In other words, not unlike the Oscars. Maybe our three spurned finalists have dodged a bullet after all.

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