Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mixed Emotions: On the 2010 Pulitzer Fiction Prize

I should say first that I really liked Paul Harding's Tinkers. Really liked it. It is a beautiful little book; the prose is intricate, precise, and elegant, not unlike the clocks that that main character attends to. And there is much to relish about the win outside the merits of the book itself; it was published by a small press and only in paper back; it is a debut novel; and The New York Times didn't even review it. I wonder when the last time, if ever, that happened.

So there is a part of me that is really pleased that it won the Pulitzer this year; the same part of me that likes art house movies, old movie musicals, and cheering for underdogs in sports movies. But there is another part of me that is disappointed, not in the work itself or the author, but in the knowledge that many people who don't follow contemporary literature that well at all will pick up and read the book because of the sticker on new printings, surely coming to a bookstore near you right now, that says "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize." My guess is that many of them will be underwhelmed. And I don't want them to be; I want them to love it. I want them to be reminded of how engrossing and rich reading can be, and I want them to rave to their friends about it. Like they did when The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay won and when Gilead won.

The Pulitzer is the most recognizable award in American fiction and moves the sales needle more than anything but the Nobel, which seems unlikely to be given to an American anytime soon. So while Harding's win puts a giant, bright feather in his cap and that of the independent publishing community, I'm not sure that is a win for the general reading public. I hope I'm wrong.