Monday, April 23, 2012

No Pulitzer for Fiction? Really? Yeah, Really

If you follow the literary side of fiction you have probably already heard the news that no Pulitzer was awarded this year.

Initially, I was up in arms over this, but then I started to think that this is rather like publishing. We, at New Libri, are a small publisher, trying to grow. This means we need manuscripts. These are submitted, just as the Pulitzer prize is through submissions (we don’t charge $50, the way the Pulitzer prize does <grin>). We don’t control the submissions. You would think in any given month that we would simply take the best of what was submitted and run with it for that month and build 12 titles per year that way.

We don’t. Many months go by with no “winner.”

I am sure most of the authors whom we reject would say, “Why not pick at least one for the month? You have the bandwidth.”

True. But, we pick manuscripts by a subjective criteria that includes things that are not obvious to the outside world and I have to assume that the criteria used by the 5 judges for the Pulitzer use criteria that is also not intuitively obvious.

If we just accepted a great book on dragons, we are not going to immediately accept another book on dragons the next month, even if it is as good, or possibly a tiny bit better than our already accepted title. It would be a disservice to at least one of the authors. If a year later our author of dragons tells us there are no sequels and another dragon book arrives that is excellent will we accept it? Stronger possibility, but what if that month (a year from now) we also receive ten excellent books in Young Adult and we are trying to maintain momentum in YA and the dragon book is a dark adult story?

It’s complicated.

Sure, judging a “contest” is different. Market considerations are not part of the equation, per se. But, things like originality, or impact on society, or social significance. Look at the 1960s. To Kill a Mockingbird and Confessions of Nat Turner were both winners. Both were about race and race relations in the U.S.  Both were excellent books, but I am sure there were other excellent books those years. Other criteria creeps in. The same is true in publishing.  The criteria is subjective. It changes from week to week and month to month. 

This is why, unlike some agents and unlike many publishers, we have a “wait and see” pile of manuscripts. Sure, some get rejected right away.  Sure some get accepted quickly, but most sit in our wait and see pile for a few weeks. We discuss them every week and they often end back up in the wait and see pile. Judges for a prize don’t get to do that. But, for the Pulitzer, it seems that they can say “no winner,” which is a bit like our “I just can’t say yes or no right now.”

I may not understand the Pulitzer criteria, or what the judges were thinking, but I have sympathy with the amorphous standards that I believe Pulitzers embrace. Would Confessions of Nat Turner win a Pulitzer in 2012? Probably not. Is it still a very good book? Yes. So, after reflection I have decided that I will not be angry at the Pulitzer judges, simply puzzled and wishing I could get in their heads, much as I suspect many new authors would like to get into and editor or agent’s head vis-à-vis their submission.

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