David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King was among those shortlisted for the Pulitzer fiction prize. Photograph: Gary Hannabarger/Corbis
A rickety shortlist doomed Pulitzer judges’ attempts to award a fiction prize this year – they should see how the Orange prize does it.
By Robert McCrum
The news that this year’s Pulitzer prize, one of the premier US literary trophies, now in its 96th year, decided not to award a prize in the category of fiction (or, indeed, in editorial writing) was coolly described by the New York Times as “notable”.
However, in some quarters, there’s already been some predictable hand-wringing. Jonathan Galassi, CEO of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a poet, translator and seasoned man of letters, with a distinguished track record of editorial excellence, has declared himself to be “shell-shocked” by this decision. No doubt there will be others who deplore a missed opportunity to promote new fiction and who raise that old, incendiary cry of The American Novel In Danger.
That – as I see it – would be hasty. There are at least three reasons to keep calm and carry on.
First, this quirky, ephemeral slight is not unprecedented. In 1977, the Pulitzer jury also chose to snub the contemporary American novel and declined to award a prize in the fiction category. The sky did not fall in, the sun rose over the East River, and New York publishing carried on, undiminished. From some points of view, it actually entered a long boom of magnificent remuneration and creativity from which it has only recently emerged.
Second, scrolling forward to 2012, whatever one wants to say about the state of the market (dire), or US bookselling in general (apparently in terminal decline), one commodity of which there is no dearth is talented – even great – American writers of all ages. Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, William Styron and Saul Bellow may be no more, but plenty of important writers have stepped forward to take their place. From Philip Roth, Paul Auster and Toni Morrison to Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson and Jeffrey Eugenides, these are good times to be reading the American novel.
Publishers may be struggling to launch new talent – that’s true of the UK, too, by the way – but, backed up by a boom in writing schools and college literature courses, there’s still a lot of talent breaking through.