No Pulitzer for DFW’s The Pale King. . . or Anything Else

So again, I somehow missed some DFW news (or non-news), but DFW’s The Pale King was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, the other two being Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia. As Ann Patchet wrote in an op-ed for the New York Time, “And the Winner Isn’t. . . ,”:

With book coverage in the media split evenly between Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games, wouldn’t it have been something to have people talking about The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous masterwork about a toiling tax collector (and this year’s third Pulitzer finalist)? Wallace is not going to have another shot at a win, which makes the fact that no one could make up their minds as to whether or not he deserved it all the more heartbreaking. (The Times also had a few people weigh in on who should have won the award.)

In my mind, however, the decision by the Pulitzer board makes a kind of sense. Admittedly, I haven’t read Johnson or Russell’s books yet, but if we just allow for the moment that The Pale King was the best U.S. novel of 2011, then the lack of an award speaks volumes. The Pale King is fantastic, but it obviously unfinished, and as such, I would have a hard time giving it any kind of award. (I guess I’m of the mindset that awards should be given for complete, fully realized works. My weird conservatism I guess.) Giving no award, however, is a kind of implicit acknowledgment of The Pale King’s value–i.e. in a year when one of the best novels was unfinished, and clearly had quite a ways to go toward completion, perhaps no one should win. In other words, I don’t think The Pale King is award-worthy, but in a year when an unfinished DFW novel is “more worthy” than a host of other texts, no one should get it. This isn’t a travesty, or the Pulitzer dropping the ball, or them doing harm to the ailing literary establishment, or not doing their part to encourage reading, etc. (and of course they did give out many other awards). Rather, it is a quiet statement that acknowledges DFW by not acknowledging him. And perhaps for such an unpublished, posthumous novel, no matter how deserving it or the rest of his writing may have been for a gaggle of awards (I need hardly mention Infinite Jest was roundly snubbed come award-time), the decision displays a kind of quiet poetic justice. (I also have to imagine he would have appreciated this sort of thing.) In a time when we are all too ready to quickly level hyperbolic and unfounded judgments and critiques against anything and everything, when loudly voiced opinion seems to be the only discourse with any traction in the public sphere, choosing not to judge, refraining from a decision, being mindful that doing nothing is preferable to doing something just for the sake of doing it, in short, preferring not to. . . perhaps the Pulitzer went to the only person that could win it in a year that saw the publication of one of the most important writers of the late 20th-c.’s final, posthumous, unfinished work: no one else.

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