The Year(s) without a Pulitzer Prize

Over the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’s nearly 100 year existence, some years have seen some real duds win. But, hey—that’s to be expected; no prize is perfect, right? There were, however, eleven years in which the Prize wasn’t awarded to any work of fiction! In the years 1917, 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974, 1977, and 2012, the Pulitzer Prize committee determined that no work of fiction was worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.

That, to me, seems to say much more about the Pulitzer Prize committee’s opinion of itself than it does about the quality of the books that came out during those years. It’s not that good books didn’t come out during the qualifying period of time, it’s that the books that came out during that time weren’t deemed worthy of the Prize. The Pulitzer Prize, then, is not necessarily awarded to “the best book of the year,” rather, it is awarded to “the book that the Pulitzer committee feels is most deserving of its stamp of approval.”

Which is a really important distinction to make. It reads “the Pulitzer Prize is not as interested in applauding great fiction as it is in applauding itself.” But, I digress.

In each of those eleven years, however, the jury that the Pulitzer committee assembled did select at least one book (in most cases, three) that they recommended to be awarded the Prize. In a few years, it was the official opinion of that selected jury that no book be rewarded, but they did at least select a few to be considered.

? ? 1917
Java Head Joseph Hergesheimer 1920
For Whom the Bell Tolls / The Trees / The Ox-Bow Incident / Oliver Wiswell Ernest Hemingway / Conrad Richter / Walter V. Tilburgh Clark / Kenneth Roberts 1941
? ? 1946
Ramey / The Sands of Karakorum / The Street of the Three Friends / The Deep Sleep / The Adventures of Augie March Jack D. Ferris / James R. Ullman / Myron Brinig / Wright Morris / Saul Bellow 1954
The Voice at the Book Door / The Last Hurrah Elizabeth Spencer / Edwin O’Connor 1957
? ? 1964
Losing Battles / Mr. Sammler’s Planet / The Wheel of Love Eudora Welty / Saul Bellow / Joyce Carol Oates 1971
Gravity’s Rainbow / The World of Apples / Burr Thomas Pynchon / John Cheever / Gore Vidal 1974
A River Runs Through It / October Light / The Franchiser Norman McLean / John Gardner / Stanley Elkin 1977
The Pale King / Swamplandia! / Train Dreams David Foster Wallace / Karen Russell / Denis Johnson 2012

There are a few interesting things to point out…

First of all, the fact that For Whom the Bell Tolls didn’t win the 1941 Pulitzer is a travesty (and I will detail the story behind that in one of my upcoming appendices). Secondly, Saul Bellow winning for Humboldt’s Gift, after being nominated many, many times and being passed in lieu of no award at all seems to me a pity Prize more than anything else. Gravity’s Rainbow’s exclusion in 1974 is also unfortunate. Three years later, in 1977, no “official Prize” was awarded despite having three finalists, but the committee did bestow a “special award” to Alex Haley’s Roots. I’m not even sure what that means. And 2012…? What a well-documented cluster cuss that was.

So, I’ve decided that when I’ve finished the last word of the last book on this list, I’m going to keep this blog going by chronicling a series of appendices in which I will read my way through the finalists that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize.


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