Pulitzer shock: US novelists snubbed by prize jury

Not since 1977 have Pulitzer judges dropped fiction prize because nothing was good enough

LAST UPDATED AT 15:01 ON Tue 17 Apr 2012

FOR the first time in 35 years, the Pulitzer Prize board has refused to select a fiction book for its annual awards. The Pulitzer Prizes for books were announced yesterday at Columbia University with honours for general non-fiction, history, and biography - but there was no fiction winner.

The contenders were Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, about a labourer in the old American West; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, an adventure tale about an eccentric family run alligator-wrestling theme park; and The Pale King, the posthumously published novel by David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, about boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.

The fiction jury was tight-lipped about its reasons for failing to nominate a winner. The three jurors - former Times-Picayune literary editor Susan Larson, Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan and Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer-winning author of The Hours - issued a brief statement saying: "In the end, none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded".

Publishers were disappointed by the decision because a prize can dramatically boost a book's sales. Previous Pulitzer success stories include classics such as Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird and John Updike's Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. A disappointed Paul Bogaards, director of publicity at Alfred A Knopf, Swamplandia's publisher, said: "It's a prize that can change the career trajectory of a writer."

Jane Smiley, 1992 Pulitzer winner for A Thousand Acres, sent an email to Associated Press saying: "I can't believe there wasn't a worthy one. It's a shame."

But it isn't necessarily a washout for the finalists. Literary blogger Janice Harayda notes that many famous novels have been passed over by the Pulitzer board in the past. These include Ernest Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Joseph Heller's Catch 22.

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