As you probably know already, the collective outrage of the publishing world found a new and wholly unexpected target this week: the Pulitzer Prize award selection committee. Despite a jury’s selection of three titles beloved by many—David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!—the award selection committee (a separate body) declined to pick a winner. Support for the finalists, and speculation as to why none were chosen, has been rampant. Susan Larson, one of the jury members who helped pick the nominees told NPR that she was “shocked, angry, and very disappointed.” Ann Patchett, in a rousing New York Times op-ed, posited the most likely reason was a split vote. The Times quoted Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler saying “It’s not meant to be a statement about fiction in general. It’s just a statement that none was able to receive a majority.”
It doesn’t help, however, that the board doesn’t provide feedback as to its individual decisions, and first impressions of the snub are nearly impossible to explain away. That “No Winner” label sends a very efficient message, however inaccurate, that of all the fiction released this year—and the jury considered 340 titles—none was worthy of the Pulitzer.
Any way you read it, it’s a stinging blow to the industry.
There are also practical consequences, of course, explored this week by PW’s own Gabe Habash. On Thursday, Habash looked at the sales numbers of past winners of the fiction Pulitzer, finding that a sales boom has been a sure thing for winners: in just a week, 2009 winner Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout increased its weekly sales fivefold, from 1,197 copies the week before to 5,257 the week after. Last year’s winner, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, tripled its weekly sales for a three month period following the win.
This year’s fiction finalists have also received a bump. On Amazon’s bestseller list, Train Dreams went from #990 to #98, Swamplandia! moved from #984 to #155, and The Pale King has jumped from #2000+ in both paperback and hardcover to #561 and #625, respectively. It’s unlikely, however, that those gains will match the post-award success of, say, Tinkers, which perhaps benefitted the most from its 2010 win and has now sold more than 360,000 copies.
But perhaps the snub has given the industry something more valuable than a gold sticker on a paperback reprint: putting not one but three novels into the national conversation, and stirring up enough controversy to make that conversation loud and impassioned.