Michael Cunningham’s Fascinating And Completely Unsatisfying Pulitzer Defense

by evanmcmurry

“The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” William Gass once said, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.”

Something besides mediocrity was afoot in the non-selection of the 2012 Pulitzer, and we now have our first testimony from someone involved in the inner process of this year’s aiming. Michael Cunningham, one of the three fiction jurors and a former Pulitzer winner himself, penned a well-written explanation of the process behind the odd selection of 2012’s three finalists, though he is just as much in the dark as the rest of us as to why the Pulitzer committee ultimately did not select any of them.

Quick background, skip if you don’t need it: for the first time since 1977, no Pulitzer was awarded this year, a move that surprised and angered a good number of people, not least of which were independent bookstore owners, who rely on the prize to boost sales of the otherwise boutique literary fiction market. Anger at the Pulitzer board soon pivoted to the fiction jurors, who seemed to have presented the board with an idiosyncratic and cumbersome selection of finalists: an uncompleted manuscript by David Foster Wallace, a novella by Denis Johnson that had been published, twice, at the other end of the last decade, and a debut novel by youngster Karen Russell. It was suggested that the board simply didn’t know what to do with a group that included at least two works that could arguably be disqualified, and called the whole thing off. This writer wondered why the tie didn’t go to Russell, for actual having written a book that could be given the award without an asterisk.

All caught up? On to Cunningham’s two-part letter-essay in the New Yorker (where else?), which, though it leaves absolutely no doubt that the three jurors approached their task with supreme gravity, is nonetheless completely unsatisfying—and not only because he ultimately has no more idea why the prize wasn’t awarded than we do.


Cunningham writes on behalf of the jury which also included English professor Maureen Corrigan and former book editor Susan Larson:

We were, all three of us, shocked by the board’s decision (non-decision), because we were, in fact, thrilled, not only by the books we’d nominated but also by several other books that came within millimetres of the final cut. We never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a prize onto. We agreed, by the end of all our reading and discussion, that contemporary American fiction is diverse, inventive, ambitious, and (maybe most important) still a lively, and therefore living, art form.


The jury does not designate a winner, or even indicate a favorite. The jury provides the board with three equally ranked options. The members of the board can, if they’re unsatisfied with the three nominees, ask the jury for a fourth possibility. No such call was made.

That last sentence is probably the most important in Cunningham’s entire missive. Why the board didn’t simply ask for another recommendation will probably be the primary unanswered question from this mess. It sounds, at least to this reader, as if the judges would have provided an alternative selection, even if they might not have been thrilled about it.

Cunningham then takes us step by step through the process of winnowing 300+ novels down to 30 or so, and then down to three. The more agonizing part of the process, Cunningham says, is not the early stages of chucking the novels that obviously weren’t worthy, but the later rounds in which the judges had to somehow filter the great from the very good. Cunningham struck down novels that were otherwise laudable but contained too many lazy lines (take note, writers); other books were well-written but too obviously derivative; a thinly-veiled Super Sad True Love Story is reluctantly struck for the simplicity of its love story. If you’re a writer, even a would-be one, this is fascinating stuff.

But then we get to this:

My own most dramatic reading experience occurred when, from the third shipment, I pulled Wallace’s “The Pale King.” I confess that I was not a huge fan of his novel “Infinite Jest,” and further confess that I thought, on opening “The Pale King,” that it was a long shot indeed, given that Wallace had not lived to complete it.

I was, as it happened, the first of us to read “The Pale King,” and well before I’d finished it I found myself calling Maureen and Susan and saying, “The first paragraph of the Wallace book is more powerful than any entire book we’ve read so far.”

Cunningham, the self-described “language crank,” was wowed by the Finnegan’s Wake-esque opener, and sold it to the other two judges. “It was a little like having heard a series of chamber pieces, and been pleased by them,” Cunningham says of the novel in comparison to the other entries, “until the orchestra started in on Beethoven.”

“The Pale King” was, of course, unfinished, but so are a number of great works of art. We have only fragments of Sappho’s poetry. Chaucer was a little more than halfway through “The Canterbury Tales” when he died. And, of course, there’s Haydn’s unfinished string quartet, and all those magnificent sculptures by Michelangelo, only half emerged from their blocks of marble.

So now we know whom to blame for the inclusion of The Pale King. But there’s an obvious problem with Cunningham’s logic: while he’s right that Sappho and Chaucer have been cemented into the canon despite the fragmented nature of their ouvre, and that unfinished works—Beethoven’s Ninth comes to mind—are now classics, the distinction of each was bestowed by time, retrospect and scholarship, not the immediate recognition of awards; they were acts of accretion, not recognition. Sappho’s poetry was written in completion, it simply has not survived that way. Canterbury Tales, classic of verse though it is, did not win the Pulitzer of 1475; centuries of readers and scholars have rendered it a classic as opposed to a half-text. Beethoven’s Ninth was not awarded a proto-Grammy, instead being declared a masterpiece only because we have the luxury of considering it in the full context of the composer’s career.

Only the last of these applies to The Pale King. It is possible that, in twenty or forty years’ time, Wallace will be enshrined as the artificing frontiersman of fiction many claim him to be; at that point, if we want to declare The Pale King an unfinished masterpiece—a could-have-been in the way that, say, The Last Tycoon is—we may. This context, one of epochal movements and shifts in taste, is the opposite of the forces that govern a yearly prize, which asks merely to name the best work of fiction within a given twelve month period. What he’d written of The Last Tycoon at the point of his too-early death suggests Fitzgerald was entering a midlife return to form; but no way did it deserve 1940’s Pulitzer, and it didn’t receive it. The quality we read into it must, by definition, be read into it, almost entirely through hindsight; The Pale King has no such hindsight yet from which to benefit.

Then there’s this:

It seemed, too, that a Pulitzer for “The Pale King” would be, by implication, an acknowledgement not only of Wallace but also of Michael Pietsch, the editor. As a novelist, I well know how much difference an editor can make—and there’s no major prize given to editors. The best an editor can hope for is mention on the acknowledgments page, when, sometimes, that editor has literally rescued the book.

That’s obnoxious. Cunningham is no doubt correct about the underappreciated role of editors, and if he ever wants to rant about it over a single malt, I’ll let him buy me a Balvenie. But the Pulitzer Prize isn’t for righting the structural wrongs of the publishing industry; all Cunningham succeeded in doing by including this reasoning is making the process seem like an insular club of literati backslapping each other, rather than the celebration of genuine achievement.

Cunningham wrote less of the other two texts. Here’s his say on Train Dreams:

Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” had been written ten years earlier and been published as a long short story in The Paris Review. It was, however, magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and—in its exhilarating, magical depiction of ordinary life in the much romanticized Wild West—a profoundly American book.

[…] “Train Dreams” had only been published as a novel in 2012, which made it eligible, for the first time, for a Pulitzer. We checked with the Pulitzer administrator about that. He gave us the O.K.

….which is permission, not an explanation. I’m 100% with the committee that Train Dreams is excellent. I also thought so in 2002, when I first read it in the Paris Review, and again when it was anthologized in The O. Henry Story Collection in 2003. But as I wrote at the time of the Pulitzer announcement, a child born when Train Dreams was first published has a cell phone by now. Why, when one is looking for a single qualified text out of 300, was deference not given to “magnificent” and “innovative” and “American” texts not 10 years old?

Cunningham doesn’t explain; he merely tells us that the text technically qualified. In the wake of what followed, who cares? No one’s here to indict Cunningham et al; we don’t care that it was technically permissable for one book or another to be considered, but why it was considered despite an obvious deficiency according to the nature of the prize. Cunningham gives us nothing to this end.

The selection of Russell’s novel was not without its equivocations, either:

Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” was a first novel, and, like many first novels, it contained among its wonders certain narrative miscalculations—the occasional overreliance on endearingly quirky characters, certain scenes that should have been subtler. Was a Pulitzer a slightly excessive response to a fledgling effort?

However, it seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed. Other first novels, among them Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” have won the Pulitzer. One is not necessarily looking for perfection in a novel, or for the level of control that generally comes with more practice. One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which “Swamplandia!” possessed in abundance.

All in all, it sounds as if the judges, or at least Cunningham, liked The Pale King the best, with a runner up as Train Dreams, and Swamplandia as a spunky bronze medal. Cunningham writes on the largely-pointless second page that the jury was looking for The One, which

The One would be the novel so monumental, so original and vast and funny and tragic, so clearly important, that only an idiot would deny it the Pulitzer Prize.

We wanted a foolproof book, a book about which we could be absolutely certain.

[…] But none of them was unquestionable, none so flawlessly and obviously great as to quell all doubts. Juries are assigned, in part, to doubt. To weigh and question, to wonder over the balance between virtue and lapse.

Cunningham clearly thought that The Pale King was as close to The One as this batch of 300 novels came. He also seems congizant that Wallace, who never received a major prize in his lifetime, wouldn’t have another chance at literature’s most prominent prize. Cunningham even runs down, as if out of guilty conscience, the list of writers who were honored far too late in their careers by similar juries who bestowed the Pulitzer more as a lifetime achievement award than a verdict of a single novel:

It’s true as well that a number of the authors of all those great but unselected books got the prize eventually, though most of us would agree that the prizes, when finally awarded, gave off a hint of redress, unless we believe that Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” (which won in 1953) outshines “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms,” or that Faulkner’s “A Fable” (1955) and “The Reivers” (1963)…leave “The Sound and the Fury” and “Absalom, Absalom!” in the Mississippi dust.

Clearly, the Pulitzer committee didn’t buy any of this, or they would have given the award to Wallace. We have no idea why the committee decided the way it did, but perhaps they didn’t want one more book included on the list of the type Cunningham just gave, one more book that obviously didn’t belong. It’s too bad that they didn’t reconvene the jury: for as much as Cunningham goes to bat for Wallace in this essay, he is not palpably convinced that The Pale Kingwas the best of the bunch. If the committee had asked Cunningham to choose again, would he have looked back into the pile of books he’d so agonizingly turned down and selected another? Or would he have stuck by Wallace’s fragment, in deference to Wallace’s career or reputation, or, most likely, the idea that future generations would look back in judgment at our inability to recongize Wallace’s genius? In worrying so much about the opinion of the future, did he commit himself a book that didn’t even survive the judgement of the present?