Wed
Apr 18 2012 5:00pm

What the Pulitzer Dust-Up Does (And Doesn’t) Mean for SF

The 2012 Pulitzer winners have been announced, and in the category of Fiction, no award was given. However, three fiction finalists were named; Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. We’ll never quite know why a winner wasn’t chosen; but as Ann Patchett pointed out in her New York Times op-ed, the likely explanation is the committee couldn’t come to a consensus. Patchett is frustrated there wasn’t a winner named. Lev Grossman, writing for Time doesn’t mind there wasn’t a winner. I tend to agree with Lev, while completely understanding where Patchett is coming from.

But, what does the lack of award, and the selection of finalists say about the future of genre fiction getting big recognition?

The following is largely speculation on my part, but I suppose the choices of the finalists indicate an interesting cross-section of genres. Just to get this out of the way: all of those authors are awesome. Further, it’s a fairly broad spectrum of imagination. I’ve not read the Pale King by David Foster Wallace, and I’m not a huge fan of his writing, but there’s no denying his greatness. The massive creativity of Infinite Jest is on par with some of the best science fiction novels of all time. Denis Johnson is flat-out one of the best writers alive, while Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is one of the deftest mashing of genres I’ve ever read.

Why did the Pulitzer people not select a winner? A posthumous award to Wallace would have been nice. Denis Johnson certainly deserves it, and Swamplandia! is awesome. Being focused on genre in “mainstream” novels, I can’t help but think of the Pulitzer fiction finalists as divided along genre biases. Is it possible that on the one side Denis Johnson’s work was too hardcore literary, and on the other side Swamplandia! was too goofy, causing David Foster Wallace to be caught in the middle? Last year they picked Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad which is fairly experimental in its format and style, and also has two chapters which straight up qualify as science fiction. In this regard, Swamplandia! actually doesn’t have nearly as many genre trappings as A Visit from Goon Squad, but overall, feels more steeped in magical realism. The funny thing about A Visit from the Goon Squad is it’s a book anyone will like, regardless of genre biases. But I’m not sure I could say this about the authors this year because there’s something inherently divisive with all three titles.

Do the inclusions of David Foster Wallace and Karen Russell represent good news for genre fiction getting huge recognition? Yes and no. Neither author is a honest-to-goodness fantasy or science fiction writer, but their work does gesture at a warmness towards the genre. That being said, despite the risks both writers take with content and style, they are still firmly in the serious literature camp. But is that a problem? Has serious literature just incorporated SF as one more tool in its toolbox, so much so that a genre novel will win the Pulitzer or some other such award without anyone noticing? In many ways, this has already happened, once with Michael Chabon for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and last year for Visit from the Goon Squad. It would be crazy to call A Visit from the Goon Squad a science fiction novel, but one could say it is a novel that just happens to have science fiction in it. Similarly, Swamplandia! isn’t a fantasy or horror novel, but it does have fantasy and horror in it. So, I suppose as long as the big bad Pulitzer people have those kinds of notion rattling around their collective (and indecisive) heads, genre fiction is probably in good shape.

In his recent piece for Time, Lev Grossman notes that he would have picked George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons if given the opportunity. I suppose if I were allowed to bring a book up for nomination, which wasn’t of the three, I’d suggest You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard if only because it’s great literature and Godzilla is in it too. Of the three, Swamplandia! would be my knee-jerk choice, but I would probably have to recuse myself because I know the author and I have an irrational love of alligators. Denis Johnson certainly deserves it, but then again David Foster Wallace is great too.

Well there you are. I guess I understand why the Pulitzer people had a rough time. Everybody wins/loses!

Next year, let’s all cross our fingers for John Scalzi.

 


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He is the creator and curator of Genre in the Mainstream, a regular column on Tor.com which talks about this kind of thing all the time.

4 comments
Ron Hogan
1. RonHogan
Well, taking a quick look at the books that I reviewed last year, and selecting for SFnal* elements, I would have felt comfortable sending either Alexander Yates' Moondogs or Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus to the full Pulitzer board for consideration.

*Does "SFnal" include fantasy, or would I have to use a "SF/Fnal" variant?
Ian Gazzotti
2. Atrus
I don't really care about the Pulitzer since it's a primarily American prize but, in general, I believe that any yearly award that can have at most one winner is running on a flawed system.
If you can't reach a consensus just make it a tie and award multiple winners. But if you really believe that none of the participants is good enough then have at least the good sense of keeping your shortlist secret, otherwise it's just like a slap in the face of the finalists.
Sam X
3. Sam X
I agree that awards are already a flawed concept, although I think the growing number of them democratizes the idea in a way; with so many respected lit awards, you can survey the winners and get a sense of "the best serious literature." I also think SF will eventually achieve serious lit respect--primarily because it will become more relevant as our world becomes more futuristic.

And a final note--it used to be more common for the Pulitzer committee to not give an award. It happened three times in the 70s...although this is the first time since then.
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
@Sam
Thanks for pointing out that a lack of Pulizter for fiction has happened before!

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