I’m angry on behalf of those novels.
We’ll never know why the Pulitzer board declined to award the prize this year, because, as is the board members’ right, they’ve drawn their Wizard of Oz curtain closed tight. We jurors have heard only the same explanation that everyone else has heard: The board could not reach a majority vote on any of the novels. I’d like to think that “The Pale King,” “Train Dreams” and “Swamplandia!” each garnered such fierce partisans on the board that no compromise could be reached. Right. Whenever I succumb to that fantasy, the words written by the winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in fiction ring in my head: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Hemingway did not win for “The Sun Also Rises,” the novel that ends with those immortal words but, rather, for “The Old Man and The Sea,” which is rather short, about 90 pages. One of the charges the literary couch quarterbacks have made against Johnson’s novel is that it is too short, in fact, novella length. But why should that matter? “The Great Gatsby,” arguably our greatest American novel, is short, too, and short-story collections are eligible for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Critics also have complained that since “Train Dreams” was first published in 2002 in the Paris Review, the book version is somehow redundant. (I know you all must have read it there first. Current circulation figures of the print edition of the Paris Review? 16,000.)
Some second-guessers have also shrugged off our nomination of “Swamplandia!” for being a debut novel by a then-29-year-old author, as though literary excellence has, like the presidency, a constitutional age requirement. Harper Lee was a mere five years older than Russell when she finished “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won the Pulitzer in 1961. Philip Roth was all of 26 when he published his short-story collection “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959 and, the following year, it won the National Book Award.
And, some tongues have wagged over our nomination of Wallace’s posthumously published novel, “The Pale King,” which was unfinished at his death in 2008 and pieced together by his editor, Michael Pietsch, from drafts and notes. By that logic, the canon should expel such fragments as Kafka’s “The Trial,” Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” Byron’s “Don Juan,” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Maybe even “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which won the Pulitzer in 1981, should be reexamined since it might well have taken a different shape had its author, John Kennedy Toole, not died before it was finally published. Like these other works, “The Pale King” stands or falls, not on its back story, but on its coherence as a literary construction. Some readers saw merely a pile of notes; we read it to be, instead, a masterful novel of American workplace ennui, with strikingly original language on almost every page.