Every once in a while, a prestigious literary award sparks controversy. The jury is seen to have flouted the rules, ignored the spirit of the prize, and made its decision based on personal sympathies rather than merit. Something that’s maybe a bit mass-market triumphs over something more cultivated. The result is outrage for some, despair for others. Precedent has been broken, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Surely, there is something rotten in all of this.
I’m talking, of course, about the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, awarded to “the original play, performed in New York during the year, which shall best represent the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standard of good morals, good taste and good manners.”
While the honour, with its $1,000 cheque, was in its fifth year in 1921, this was not to be its fifth winner. No award was given in the inaugural year, 1917, nor was there a winner in 1919. Throughout their springtime deliberations, jurors were once again “disposed to vote ‘No Prize,’ ” as the chair, the novelist Hamlin Garland, wrote at the time. “As there is no outstanding play on which your committee can agree, I am making that recommendation.” Yet there was pressure to recognize someone — even if that meant compromise or other-than-literary considerations. The jury kept at it.
So it was that Zona Gale, a forty-seven-year-old writer from small-town Wisconsin, won the Pulitzer Prize for Miss Lulu Bett, which had played the Belmont Theatre on West 48th Street for 176 performances. The problem was that pesky word “original” in the prize’s criteria. Gale’s play was not an original but rather an adaptation of her own best-selling (and Pulitzer-nominated) novel of the same name. What’s more, Gale had completely rewritten the final act shortly after opening night. Critics called foul: the novelist-cum-playwright had simply pandered to the whims of popular taste. Awarding Miss Lulu Bett the Pulitzer was akin to giving Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with a reworked fan-fiction ending, the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Nonetheless, Garland privately confided to one juror that “it would be a handsome thing to give the prize to a woman.” And so it was that Zona Gale became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was a contentious but historic moment — one quickly overshadowed by still another controversy.
When the New York Times announced the Pulitzer winners on May 30, Gale’s name featured prominently in the headlines. Yet it is Edith Wharton, mentioned several column inches below in much smaller type, whom we remember as the first woman to win a Pulitzer — any Pulitzer — for her novel The Age of Innocence. “I confess I did despair,” Wharton later wrote. “Disgust was added to despair” when she learned that the fiction jury — also chaired by Garland — had actually selected Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, only to be overturned by the Pulitzer board at Columbia University for political reasons.
So it was that one contentious decision, fraught with horse-trading, was eclipsed by another, with even the winners a little unsure what to think.
Perhaps there was a tinge of “I confess I did despair” in Margaret Atwood’s voice as she accepted half of the 2019 Booker Prize on an October night in London. “I kind of don’t need the attention,” she said, not long after the jury broke the rules and split the high-profile award and £50,000 cheque between The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.
With her win — her second, actually — the seventy-nine-year-old Atwood becomes the oldest recipient of the fifty-year-old prize. And with hers, sixty-year-old Evaristo becomes the first black woman to win a Booker. Yet, at least in some quarters, controversy overshadows both accomplishments.
The Telegraph has called the joint prize “a spineless fudge” — one “favouring politics over merit” and “mired in controversy.” In an online essay, one former Booker jury member, Sam Leith, called the decision an “epic fail” and suggested “the reading public’s mind will be that one or other of these considerable authors was being patronised” and that “something extra-literary had entered into the considerations of the panel.” And Sam Jordison, publisher of Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-nominated Ducks, Newburyport, said the fix was in all along. “We have spent thousands of pounds that we don’t have,” he complained, according to the Telegraph. “And we never had a hope from the start.”
On this side of the Atlantic, many have parsed Atwood’s words and the jury’s five-hour deliberations. Some of the most virulent Twitter commentary has since been deleted, but Russell Smith more or less captured its essence. “It is true that the outpouring of hatred for Margaret Atwood that I have seen on CanLit Twitter in the past week is head-spinning,” he wrote in the Globe and Mail. “The feminist icon was denounced as a traitor to women and the #MeToo movement.”
Even in kinder circles, some worry that this year’s jury chair, Peter Florence, and his fellow judges set a bad example for the future. “It was Peter’s job to break the tie,” an industry insider and fan of both winners said to me at a recent dinner party. “The Booker Foundation has rules — and they should be followed.”
As a Capricorn, I happen to like rules and, more often than not, think they should be followed. But I also like history, which reminds us that our current moment isn’t so exceptional after all. When it comes to literary prizes, politics and controversies and second-guessing have always been with us.
When Sinclair Lewis finally won the Pulitzer in 1926, for Arrowsmith, he turned it down, still smarting about his Main Street snub five years prior. That hasn’t kept the Pulitzer board from overturning its juries again and again — when it went with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song instead of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, in 1980, for example, or when it honoured Allen Drury’s debut, Advise and Consent, instead of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, in 1960. Here in Canada, shortlists for the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Awards are often considered terribly flawed by vocal cancel-culture pundits on Twitter. And this year’s flagrant disregard for the rules is not the last time controversy will dog the Booker.
Literary prizes are, by their very nature, subjective and messy — even if the rules try to apply a veneer of objectivity, fairness, or process to the decision making. The kind of people who sit on juries, Capricorns notwithstanding, are often the same people we celebrate for flouting the rules and pushing boundaries in their non-jury work. Precedents are ignored and new ones — like two women sharing the distinction of breaking the Pulitzer’s glass ceiling nearly a century ago — get set.
Politics or not, extraneous considerations or not, broken rules or not — do we really need to accuse a winner, any winner, of a prestigious literary prize of being “a bootlicker of the patriarchy”? Or might we better spend our time actually reading the books that win and the books that don’t, and telling our friends about the ones that speak to us most?
Kyle Wyatt is the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada.
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Michiel Horn, FRSC Toronto