By Cate Czarnecki
Citing a failure to achieve consensus, the Pulitzer Prize committee declined to award a prize in the category of fiction this year for the first time since 1977. This decision has generated a lively debate within the American literary community over the impact of the prize—on authors as well as publishers—and its significance for contemporary American readers.
Susan Larson, former books editor of the Times-Picayune and host of The Reading Life on WWNO, has twice chaired the independent jury charged with narrowing down the many titles submitted to be considered for a Pulitzer. The jury chooses three nominations to send for judgment to the Pulitzer committee, which selects the year’s winner—or doesn’t.
Larson spoke with Room 220 recently about her thoughts on the lack of an award this year, as well as her experience working (and reading) as a fiction critic in New Orleans.
Room 220: How did your years as the books editor of the Times-Picayune prepare you for your position on the fiction jury?
Susan Larson: My work at the Times-Picayune gave me incredible discipline as a reader—I’ve read almost a book a day for most of my adult life—as well as a good overview of American fiction, the ability to work under pressure, and of course, it instilled confidence in my choices.
Rm 220: Besides simply working through the sheer volume of fiction submissions, what do you think was the most challenging aspect of the jury process?
SL: I first chaired the fiction jury in 2009, so there were no surprises this time around—except at the end, of course! The great reward of this work is the process, and sharing the experience with my fellow jurors—this year they were Maureen Corrigan, a critic I so admire, and Michael Cunningham, one of my favorite novelists.
Working through the sheer volume of submissions is the most challenging part. What many people don’t realize is that a number of the submissions are self-published books that take up an enormous amount of time and rarely measure up to Pulitzer standards.
Our group hit its stride fairly early. My previous group of jurors—Richard Dillard and Nancy Pearl—worked through email. This time, we worked primarily via conference call. The three of us had one meeting early on, in Washington, D.C., during the National Book Festival. We talked about the first round of submissions we’d read over the summer, as well as our favorite books, so we had a good sense of what we were bringing to the table. As a veteran, one of my biggest contributions was the assurance that yes, it was possible: the books would all get read, and we would come up with three finalists. You really operate with a heightened sense of alertness doing this work—you have to bring your best self to the reading, to the conversation. Our meetings and exchanges were some of the most intense, rewarding and inspiring conversations I have ever had about literature. I will treasure them for the rest of my life.
Rm220: What were the particular qualities or themes you were looking for when approaching a submission, and what do you think distinguished the three novels that the jury ultimately selected?
SL: There’s always that Pulitzer ideal lurking in the back of your mind when you’re doing this reading. It’s directed, devotional, meditative, purposeful reading, because the prize has such history and staying power. But we weren’t looking for themes! All of us were looking for inventive and powerful language, compelling characters, and masterful storytelling—books that crackled with energy and life. These three finalists possess that in abundance. The Pale King, while unfinished, still seems to me an American masterpiece. I believe it was Michael who said, “There’s not a bum line in the book.” Train Dreams is simply an exquisite tale of the American West—there are scenes in that book that will haunt me forever. And Swamplandia!—all I have to do is hear the title and I am immediately transported to that vivid landscape. The three books are so different from one another, such fine representatives of the array of talent in American writing.
Rm220: Was there anything about Swamplandia! that appealed to you personally, given your career as a book editor in the South and the novel’s Southern Gothic style?
SL: Oh, yes. Swamplandia! was one of my favorite novels of the year. I loved its grand ambition—it’s a truly great American tall tale. Ava Bigtree is such an engaging character, and her losses are so real, so total. And yet she has such spirit! The book is marked by such love of landscape—how heartbreaking it is to read “The swamp is writing her own suicide note.” That’s certainly something that speaks to all of us who live in Louisiana, isn’t it? I can’t wait to read what Karen Russell writes next.
Rm220: There are some who may interpret the lack of an award as a comment on the state of contemporary American literature. In your opinion, what role does the Pulitzer Prize play in the world of literary fiction and how should the Committee’s decision be viewed by the American reader?
SL: I don’t believe the board was trying to send a message about the state of contemporary American literature. I hope that they were just bound by their own rules and were unable to bend. It’s such an important prize—and usually it means the book has staying power. I loved the conversations I had with readers after the jury I worked with in 2009 selected Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, for the prize.This year, the conversations about the process have eclipsed the wonder of the books themselves. There are so many book clubs devoted to Pulitzer choices—everyone loves to debate their merits, predict outcomes, and suggest alternate choices. And these days, anything that drives a large readership to a particular book seems nothing short of a miracle. The best possible spin an American reader can put on this decision is that she should read all three books and decide for herself.
One of the things that surprised me the most on Monday was the public’s—and much of the media’s—misapprehension of the way the process works. Many seemed to think that the jury awarded the prize. The jury submits three finalists to the board in an unranked report. The jurors actually find out the result at the same time everyone else does.
Rm220: What other novels would you recommend from 2011 that didn’t make the final three? Were there any New Orleans authors up for consideration?
SL: Due to the confidential nature of the work, I don’t think I should comment on what other books were nominated. Speaking strictly for myself, among the books I admired most last year were Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise, Russell Banks’ The Lost Memory of Skin, Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination (a special favorite), Teju Cole’s Open City, Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, Hector Tobar’s Barbarian Nurseries, Justin Torres’ We the Animals, Amy Waldman’s The Submission, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (one of the remarkable novels inspired by the events of Hurricane Katrina).
Rm220: What are your thoughts on the tradition of literary fiction in New Orleans and do you still see the city as an incubator for literary thought and expression?
SL: It just keeps on coming, doesn’t it? Natives come of age, turn to writing, render their experiences; writers come to town, settle down, stake out a literary neighborhood and bring it to life; other writers drift through, visiting for short or extended stays, and take away something that later comes to light in a surprising way. New Orleans is a kind of True South on the literary compass—its allure remains strong. And in these post-Katrina years, everyone in the city has a sense of story, a hard-won tale of their own. We all have a stake in our urban narrative. That’s a rare quality in a city, to value the shared story, to collaborate in the large sense of public creativity. No end in sight!