A List of Good Books the Pulitzer Didn’t Pick

Gabe Habash -- April 17th, 2012

Some reactions following the announcement that the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was a head fake:

“Shocked…angry…and very disappointed.”

-Pulitzer fiction juror Susan Larson

“Honestly, I feel angry on behalf of three great American novels.”

-Pulitzer fiction juror Maureen Corrigan

“I was so thrilled for Karen,” Ms. Pavlin said. “Then my second response was, what a shame, because the committee had it within their power to do something so wonderful for any one of those novelists. And they, for whatever reason, chose not to.”

-Swamplandia! editor Jordan Pavlin

According to the Pulitzer’s site, the award is “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” But no book, apparently, was distinguished enough.

There are a lot of people who lose out with this decision, the largest group of which is the reading public, who, as the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles tweeted, “would have been directed to a good novel.” Larson said the fiction reading community hopefully will now be encouraged to “read three books instead of one,” and we couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’ve put together some good books from last year that the Pulitzer didn’t think were worthy.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

The Call by Yannick Murphy

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Open City by Teju Cole

Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman

I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet

A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles

My New American Life by Francine Prose

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

The Submission by Amy Waldman

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

11 thoughts on “A List of Good Books the Pulitzer Didn’t Pick

  1. Melinda

    As a bookseller, I completely disagree with the choice of the Pulitzer jury to award no prize for Best Fiction. As other comment writers have already pointed out, there WERE several very worthy candidates. What does this say to the rest of the world on behalf of the state of fiction literature in the United States? That we don’t have anything good? The long term effects may be quite harmful to both reading and publishing,

  2. Chris Roberts

    Working off the three novels they had, nobody should be shocked or even mildly perturbed. It was not a particularly strong list of fiction candidates, the Pulitzer committee’s decision is dead on. Scratching their heads after reading “Swamplandia” they cried out in unison, “Really, is this it?”

    1. Deon Stonehouse

      They may have been scratching their heads, I can’t comment on the state of their heads or the necessity of scratching same. But to say they did not have submissions worthy of the Pulitzer is not only arrogant, it is wrong. Look at Pavlin’s list! There were many worthy books. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson married a very western story to stark, haunting prose, truly worthy of the prize.

  3. Suzanne

    Can we have a brief reality check? Jordan Pavlin comments that “the committee had it within their power to do something so wonderful for any one of those novelists. And they, for whatever reason, chose not to.” However much we may disagree with the lack of ability of the panel to pick a book, their job was NOT to give a career boost to a novelist; to do “something so wonderful” for them. Rather, it was to reward them for having written something wonderful, for having given readers a book to cherish. However much I might disagree with their choice, or argue with their inability to MAKE a choice, I think that Pavlin’s comment is dismaying.

    1. Gabe Habash Post author

      True, it’s not their job to make an author feel good, but that does happen when they do give out an award. Pavlin is, understandably, coming from a pretty personal place, having presumably worked months and months with Russell on her book. I think he’s just voicing the disappointment he has based on his relation to this year’s award.

      1. Suzanne

        Oh yes, I agree with you on all the above, and I can certainly see why Pavlin would respond in this manner. But it’s simply inappropriate. The reality is that an editor wants a book to win a Pulitzer because that’s going to generate thousands of new sales — and a potentially unlimited shelf life as part of a backlist. But to publicly imply that you think that’s the job of the panelists — to make an author feel good and to drive sales — strikes me as rather poor judgment. The great book comes first; then comes the recognition (hopefully). If the committee couldn’t agree on a book that they thought merited an award, well, I might think that reflected poorly on them. But I’d rather see criticism along the lines of “well, why didn’t they try harder or cast a wider net”, as suggested in this article, rather than, “well, it’s their duty to help out some poor author.”

    2. Deon Stonehouse

      Have you read Train Dreams by Denis Johnson? It is awesome! How can anyone describer this book as unworthy? Stark, beautiful writing, a story true to the character of the land and times all fit perfectly into the goal of the Pulitzer. I agree with Pavlin. There were many books worthy of the prize, the committee failed. What a statement! Indicating no work of fiction was worthy seems terribly arrogant. I have read many of the books on Pavlin’s list, they are definitely worthy. There are several I would add to the list: West of Here by Jonathan Evison, Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, and The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar. To say no work worthy of the Pulitzer was published in the US is not only sad, it is untrue.

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