The publishing industry’s pursuit of prizes has led to an epidemic of novelistic navel-gazing.
Woe betide our republic of letters! The shadowy culture arbiters who serve on the Pulitzer Prize board have withheld their favor from the field of American novels published in 2011. Booksellers, writers and critics have been up in arms ever since news of the non-award broke in mid-April. In a cri de coeur published in the New York Times’s op-ed pages, novelist Ann Patchett—who also runs an independent bookstore in Nashville—decried the committee’s abstention as a cause for “indignation” and, indeed, “rage.”
“I can’t imagine there was ever a year when we were so in need of the excitement the [fiction Pulitzer] creates in readers,” Ms. Patchett wrote.
It’s easy to miss, amid Ms. Patchett’s vehemence, the patent condescension that prize-dependent marketing visits upon American readers. In her distinctly arid account of readerly engagement, news of a prestigious laurel is what’s needed to generate “the buzz,” as she puts it, “that is so often lacking.” But the question is far better turned on its head: If an entire industry must rely on aloof prize boards to gin up sustained interest, then the trouble would seem to be the industry itself, rather than the prize boards or the consumers.
This was, after all, the identical argument that publishing executives trotted out in favor of Oprah Winfrey’s relentlessly middle-brow book club when Dame Oprah threatened its retirement, and when Jonathan Franzen sullied it with his sniveling high-brow criticisms: If we sacrifice Oprah’s market-making might, then surely the sky will fall! the collective wail then went; without patient tutelage from the sovereign of daytime talk, it was thought, Americans would revert to simply using books to squash bugs or prop open their outhouse windows. In reality, of course, publishers survived the withdrawn patronage of the Big O just fine—and far from being starved for reliable advice, readers can glean literary recommendations, opinions and argument from a wider range of sources than ever, thanks largely to the explosion of online literary sites.
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