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The voting process to determine the Pulitzer Prize winners may have been more influential in the outcome than the novels themselves.
The 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced yesterday, honoring journalists, writers, and photographers for their achievements in the past year.
Much to the chagrin of observers, however, the Pulitzer board failed to select a recipient for the award in fiction.
Publishers and others in the field were livid about the first such snub since 1977, and the eleventh in the history of the award, according to The New York Times (which received two Pulitzers). The three nominees were: "Train Dreams," by Denis Johnson, "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell, and "The Pale King," by the late David Foster Wallace.
Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (which published "Train Dreams"), told The Times he was "shellshocked" by the announcement, calling it a "missed opportunity" for the industry. Winning books usually receive corresponding boosts in sales and a rapid rise in publicity. Other literature aficionados and professionals took to social media to express their disappointment.
One of the chairs of the Pulitzer jury herself, Susan Larson, told the Huffington Post:
"The jury members were all shocked and disappointed and angry at the news, of course. We thought so highly of these three books, we took our responsibilities very seriously, and our decision was unanimous."
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The Pulitzer Plan of Award states, "If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board, the amount of such prize or prizes may be withheld."
While this may be the case, it may have been the voting process that forced the Pulitzer board to withold the award. According to The Times:
"Usually, a winner is selected in a two-step process. A three-member fiction jury reviews hundreds of books (341, in this case), comes up with three finalists and sends those finalists to the Pulitzer board.
The board then reads the books and meets for two days — this year, it was last Thursday and Friday — to make the final determination of winners in all 21 categories."
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When voting on the finalists, the board — which is made up of 20 members, three co-chairs, and an administrator — can only grant the award if one receives a majority.
Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, told the Times, "Whenever they make a decision, 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.”
While reactions from observers are understandable, based on the incredible returns of winning the award, it is important to note that it may not necessarily have been due to the fact that one of the books "fell below the standard of excellence."
They could have all been such masterful works of literature that none of the panelists could agree which one was best.