Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Jury Is Excused. Or Not.

    I know what you are thinking:  "What does this have to do with poetry?"

    Everything.  Trust me.  If not, then humor me.

Michael Cunningham

    The announcement in April that, for the tenth time, there would be no 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction seems to have astonished the literary community.  I have no idea why.

    Michael Cunningham's inside view of the process, "Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury:  What Really Happened This Year", continued here, was illuminating--perhaps more so than he realized.

    As always, the 3-reader jury rendered up three finalists to the 18 member board.  These tomes were regarded with such disdain by the final arbiters that they didn't bother to ask for other submissions.  Did they feel that this particular trio, Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan, and Susan Larson, would not produce a candidate worthy of a Pulitzer?  If so, was it because there were no great novels proffered in 2012?  Can 300+ sets of blurbers all be wrong?  Possibly.  Otherwise, we turn to the jury, a remarkably homogenous group (i.e. "three slices of academic NPR white bread") embracing a single, peculiar aesthetic.


Maureen Corrigan
     Some of their predilections would raise eyebrows, at least.  According to the standards they defined for themselves, the "visionary" was to be preferred over the "modest", even if the former lacked the wherewithal to bring that dreamscape to life.  That "every line should be a good one" would be a stringent requirement even in poetry (pacing, anyone?).  The writing must have an "original voice" (WTF?) and a "solidly crafted structure" (apparently, nothing else needs to be solidly crafted, just the structure).  As every soap opera or Gothic Romance fan knows, love stories must all "depict the body of darker emotions that are integral to love: moments of rage, disappointment, pettiness, and greed, to name a few."  I guess anything else would be...what?  Insufficiently clichéd?  For me, the smoking gun was this sentence:  "We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature."  In other words, they wanted ramblers, not economy, purple rather than tight prose.  That's right.  Concision would be regarded as a liability.  Leave brevity to poets, I suppose!

     For example, this elephantine excerpt from Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams", a train wreck complete with questionable em dash and semicolon use, superfluous cliché (e.g. "vividly", "ever", "white", "wondrous"), ending only eventually and with a moribund personification, is touted as "magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and...profoundly American":

"All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking--the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utter still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world."

     All three jury members have taught creative writing or literature.  Perhaps their next course could be on everything that is wrong with Johnson's sentence.

     A similar ouverture from David Foster Wallace’s "The Pale King" begins with the same conjunctionitis, turns into a seed catalogue and then, like so much roughage, ends as tripe:

"Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all head gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek."

     Could you imagine not knowing the difference between that and Pulitzer Prize winning writing?  If these are the exemplars shouldn't the also-rans be reported to the EPA and the rejects quarantined with the Spanish Flu virus?

Susan Larson
     Had the same tastes and acumen been shared by jury and board the latter would have either liked one of the nominated tomes or asked for a fourth.  Can we draw inferences about the expectations of the board, whose members were described as "primarily journalists and academics"?

     Actually, yes, I believe we can.

     The who-what-where-when-why journalists weren't going to like the florid passages.  Similarly, at least some of the academics were likely to have more experience with poetry, such that they might hold a far more positive view of the succinct.  Among the eighteen, some may have been more perspicacious about proper grammar and punctuation than Larson, Corrigan and Cunningham.  Clearly, the board understood that there could have been dozens of Pulitzer-quality books in that pile but that these three screeners wouldn't find one before the deadline.

    "When Maureen, Susan, and I talked Big Book," Mr. Cunningham explains, "we were thinking almost literally--a book that was, if not over five hundred pages long, vast in its scope, enormous in its concerns."

     Gee, how can we argue with this bigger-is-better "logic"?  After all, at used book stores all over America literature is occasionally sold by the pound.  Why should Pulitzer judges use a different scale? 

     In lamenting the inability to find a winner, Mr. Cunningham says that an "American writer has been ill served and underestimated."  We can only hope he understands that the odds are better than 100-to-1 that he and his two fellow jurists were the ones doing the underestimating.  To wit, the jury read and tossed over 300 books;  the board received and rejected only three and, from what we've seen, those were eyesores.

     This debacle confirms a few points I may have touched (read:  harped) on in the past:

  • Cudgel #1:  Except as a voting bloc, three heads with a single thought are not better than one.  Save money and dump two of them.  Remember:  you're trying to create a judge's chamber, not an echo chamber.  Having three jurists is a luxury that other contests can only envy;  use it to include three different sensitivities or perspectives and more than one community.  Don't worry if your selectors don't get along as well as these three did.  You're dealing with High Art, not High Tea.

  • Cudgel #2:  Juries need to be charged.  Even the broadest aesthetic needs to be presented as such, lest it be abridged, as it was here.  The mandate from the Committee was simple:  find exceptional writing.  That is the kind you would recommend to your mature offspring, the kind you remember long after you forget reading "Zen Zombies and the Art of Trailer Park Maintenance".  The mandate made no mention of "insufficiently complicated" plots.  We aren't talking about dime store Indiana Jones travelogue thrillers.  Indeed, Hemingway managed to win a Pulitzer by writing about an old man, a fish, and the sea.  That's it, the whole plot line, character list and setting:  man, fish, sea.

  • Cudgel #3:  The Pulitzer Prize is an award, not a contest.  It isn't about "the best entry submitted" or even "the best of 2012";  it's about the best.  Period.  If the 18 panelists didn't see anything of the calibre of "The Stone Diaries", "The Executioner's Song", "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "Tales of the South Pacific" then they made the perfect choice.

  • Cudgel #4:  Don't select jurists who worry about being "seduced by the language".  That is what good writing is all about.


Your comments and questions are welcome.