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Why wasn’t there a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction this year?

A three-person fiction jury read 314 books before deciding on three finalists, but a Pulitzer Prize winner was not selected. In Pulitzer history, fiction has not had a winner 11 times.

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The Pulitzer Prizes are usually big news for who wins. This year, they are big news for who didn’t.

No Pulitzer Prize winner was announced on Monday for either fiction or editorial writing, despite a jury naming three finalists in each category.

“We are always sorry when people are disappointed,” says Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. “I always like to think that giving an award is like sprinkling fairy dust on the recipients.”

The lack of a prizewinner in fiction, a popular category, has gotten a lot of attention. But, Mr. Gissler says, “It is not a statement about fiction in general – just a statement about the process.”

The three finalists in a category are selected by a jury, which then sends the works to the 20-person Pulitzer Prize Board. The board meets over two days to choose the winners. As was the case this time, if a work fails to get the majority of the board’s vote, no award is given. (Not all 20 board members can vote. The number of voting members varies but is about 18.)

This year, the three-person fiction jury read 314 books before deciding on the finalists. The finalists were “Train Dreams,” a novella by Denis Johnson; “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell; and “The Pale King,” by David Foster Wallace, which was published posthumously.

There is speculation that the books were more-unusual choices than in years past.

“The Pale King” was unfinished when Mr. Wallace died, and his editor pieced together much of the book from his manuscripts after his death.

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“Some parts are clearly finished, but as a whole it doesn’t feel quite finished,” says Sam MacLaughlin, a bookseller at McNally Jackson Books in New York City. “But one or two of the set pieces are some of the best writing I have read all year.”

Still, says Mr. MacLaughlin, a prize “would have been a worthwhile and understandable gesture towards David Foster Wallace’s career.”

Mr. Johnson’s “Train Dreams” was made into a collection after it appeared in The Paris Review. And “Swamplandia!,” while a well-received novel, lacked some of the epic sweep that has characterized winners in the past.

Last year’s award went to Jennifer Egan for “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” 

This year, “there were multiple factors for not awarding a winner,” says Gissler, who declined to discuss the reasons in detail.

Still, many were disappointed that a winner was not selected from the finalists.

“We nominated three novels we believe to be more than Pulitzer-worthy – David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Karen Russell's Swamplandia! and Denis Johnson's Train Dreams. That the board declined to award the prize to any of these superb novels is inexplicable," jury member Maureen Corrigan, a book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and Georgetown University critic in residence, told the Georgetown English Department blog.

The lack of a winner (who receives $10,000) is not as rare as it sounds. An award has not been given 62 times across all categories in the organization’s 95-year history.

Fiction has not been chosen 11 times since 1917, when the Pulitzers began. Prior to this year, the editorial writing category had not produced a winner nine times, most recently in 2008. Editorial writing is the most common news category not to receive an award.

Last year, for the first time in the history of the Pulitzer Prizes, no award was given in the breaking news category. In 2006, there was no award for drama, and in 2004, no award was given for feature writing.

The Pulitzer Prize for fiction typically helps book sales, which is especially valuable to the struggling book industry.

“Maybe this will lead to a sale boost for all three, but I doubt it,” MacLaughlin says.

Book sales aren’t driving decisions for the Pulitzer Prize Board.

“We don’t take the consequences for the industry into account, just the quality of the work,” says Gissler.


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