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Ann Patchett: Pulitzers Skipping Fiction Prize a ‘Big Loss’ for Booksellers

April 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
For the first time since 1977, no Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded this year when none of the three finalists won a majority of a jury's vote. Best-selling authors Ann Patchett and Lev Grossman speak with Jeffrey Brown about the integrity of the judging process and the Pulitzers' power as a sales tool for booksellers.
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JEFFREY BROWN: When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this week, there was one rather glaring omission in the arts categories. No award was given for fiction, the first time that’s happened since 1977.

Today, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prize told the NewsHour that — quote — “The jury nominated three finalists, and the board gave the nominations lengthy consideration, but at the end of the discussions, no finalist rose to the level of the majority vote. When there is no majority, there is no award.”

The no-decision stirred up the world of books, including two bestselling authors who join us now. Ann Patchett’s novels include “Bel Canto” and her latest, “State of Wonder.” She also owns and runs Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville. Lev Grossman’s novels include “The Magicians” and “The Magician King.” He serves as the book critic for Time magazine.

And welcome to both of you.

Ann Patchett, I will start with you.

You feel disappointment as a writer, indignation as a reader, rage as a bookseller. That’s how you put it in a New York Times piece today. Explain why this bothers you so much.

The fact that the Pulitzer Board can come out and say, well, we didn't find a book that we could give it to this year gives me some faith in the integrity of the process, because I actually don't believe that there are great novels every year.Lev Grossman

ANN PATCHETT, author, “State of Wonder”: Well, the most important point is really as a bookseller, because independent bookstores, as we all know, are struggling.

I have to say Parnassus is doing pretty well, but there is a real pull constantly to try to figure out how to get readers into the store, how to get them excited about books, and especially important literary books. And the Pulitzer is a big draw. It’s right up there with Christmas for bringing people into the store every year.

So it’s a big loss as a bookseller, just not having that prize that people are talking about and getting them into the store to get this particular book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Lev Grossman, you wrote in Time — quote — “For an organization like the Pulitzer Board to automatically hand a prize to a novel every single year feels a bit like bad faith to me.”

Now, what do you mean by that? What’s the argument for not doing it every year?

LEV GROSSMAN, author, “The Magicians”: Well, I want to start by saying that I, too, as a reader, was disappointed that they didn’t give out the award.

But I guess it comes down to how often you really feel as though great novels are published. Is a great novel published every year? And the fact that the Pulitzer Board can come out and say, well, we didn’t find a book that we could give it to this year gives me some faith in the integrity of the process, because I actually don’t believe that there are great novels every year.

And for the Pulitzer people to come out and say, we couldn’t find it, we tried, but we couldn’t, makes me feel as though they are in good faith with us as readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so we’re talking about sales, we’re talking about the integrity of the process.

Ann Patchett, do you want to come back on that integrity question? What do you think?

ANN PATCHETT: Well, let me come back on this. We don’t know that it was integrity. It could have just really been a hung jury, because there’s — there’s some thinking that it was three people, there was no clear winner.

But that doesn’t mean that they decided they looked at these three books and said none of them were good enough. One of the things that bothers me tremendously about this whole conversation is that these are three good books, and it almost feels like these three people are being singled out and you’re saying, oh, we almost gave you the Pulitzer, but you’re really not quite good enough, so we’re not going to give it to you.

It could have been that they just didn’t decide amongst themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lev Grossman, what about the sales argument? Well, first, how much impact do you think that these kinds of awards actually have? And to the extent that they do have some impact on sales and attention for books, is it not a loss to have an award?

LEV GROSSMAN: It’s certainly a loss. It’s regrettable.

The Pulitzer is a powerful, a powerful sales tool. And it’s a powerful force for good. A few years ago, Junot Diaz got the award, and that was tremendous for him. Edward P. Jones was another great, great Pulitzer winner that really put him before the public in a way that he deserved to be.

So my sense is that, unlike not all awards, the Pulitzer actually is very powerful. But I feel like that power depends on it being used responsibly. And if they were to give it to a book that they didn’t feel was a great book, maybe it wouldn’t be as powerful in future years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann Patchett, I noticed, speaking of other awards, you raised the analogy in your Times piece to the Academy Awards.

ANN PATCHETT: Yes, yes, which is not an institution that is desperate to find the absolute best film every year.

It’s a show about getting people to go to the movies. And to some extent, that’s part of the Pulitzer’s responsibility, that we need to get people reading. And it’s not as if there isn’t a book that’s good enough. There were loads of books that were good enough this year. And, frankly, all three of the finalists were more than good enough.

And I think that the main thing that we need, especially in this environment of, are people still reading fiction, are people still going to their bookstores, we need the Prize to do their job and to pick a winner that we can all feel excited about, although I will say this is very nice, too, because the fact that there is no prize, weirdly, also serves the same purpose of getting people discussing books.

I mean, would you have had the Pulitzer winner on the show? Maybe, maybe not. But to be able to discuss the books and say, OK, these three books are really good, and everybody’s putting out their choices of books, saying, if you didn’t like these three, I have got three more that are really good. And that’s exciting, because people are recommending books. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, to be fair, many years, we have actually had the winner on, not every year, probably, but. . .

(LAUGHTER)

ANN PATCHETT: Good for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Good for us, but I’m glad to have this discussion. It allows a different kind of discussion.

But, Lev Grossman, what about that? Is it possible that some good comes out of this? I mean, I have seen now that bookstores are having sort of special events. We’re having this discussion. People are able to talk about books and recommend books that readers might go and look at from last year.

LEV GROSSMAN: I think it’s great.

I get to be on TV, which definitely doesn’t happen every year.

(LAUGHTER)

LEV GROSSMAN: I think the way that it has stirred up a debate about literary value and the function of prizes and what literary greatness is, I think is wonderful. I think it’s terrific.

I — the greatest book that I read last year, I think, was by George R.R. Martin. Martin is — because he’s such a commercial writer, a popular writer, it’s generally felt that he cannot be a great writer as well. Personally, I feel that he is. And it’s a wonderful thing to be able to argue about.

áJEFFREY BROWN: And, Ann Patchett, just in our last. . .

ANN PATCHETT: Well. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead. I was going to ask you, we have raised the three nominees or — that were put forward. I realize we haven’t said what they are.

So, tell us what they are, and so readers will know what they can look at.

ANN PATCHETT: Sure.

“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, which is a wonderful novella about the logging industry in Oregon, covers a long period of time, starts at the turn of the century.

David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel “The Pale King” about the toiling tax collector, a sprawling, brilliant, ambitious piece of work.

And I will say, for “Train Dreams,” such a beautiful book. Just every single sentence in that book was perfect, as far as I’m concerned.

And then Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia,” which is just a very thrilling, imaginative book that is set in an alligator park in Florida.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, books that readers can go to, prize or no, right?

Ann Patchett and Lev Grossman, thanks so much.

ANN PATCHETT: Thank you for having us.

LEV GROSSMAN: Thank you.