By Isaac Butler
Michael Cunningham has written the first (lengthy) part of a two part series going behind the scenes into the Putlizer Fiction jury for 2011, which he sat on. You can check out part one here. I am really glad that Cunningham wrote this, and I am also really glad that he is as honest as he is about the process, his criteria for selecting books, his insecurities etc. That said, the piece reveals some problems within the process and, frankly, I think his criteria are both faulty and symtomatic of larger problems with the world of literature today.
Cunningham is understandably upset that the larger Pulitzer committee (which is made up of journalists who review the three finalists selected by the jurors in the various fields) did not award one of the three novles chosen by the jury, nor did they request a fourth option, as apparently they can do. Cunningham's essay doesn't really examine, however, whether there were any problems with the choices they made as a jury. And if you look at the choices, the committees refusal to award one of these three particular books kinda makes sense.
The three choices were The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and Swamplandia by Karen Russell.
The Pale King is, of course, the final novel by Wallace, left unfinished when he committed suicide. Cunningham brings up that all sorts of master works (including The Cantebury Tales) that were left unfinished when their authors died, but The Pale King is particularly unfinished. Wallace left behind a stack of pages that he felt were good enough to send out to agents to get an advance on the book. That is not what the reader in fact gets with TPK. Intsead, the reader gets some of those pages and some other pages and expanded notes and loose pieces assembled over the last couple of years by Wallace's longtime editor.
TPK is also a book were the individual pieces function in relationship to one another. It's a series of interconnected vignettes that exist in mosaic, lacking a central narrative. In such a case, it's hard to say the book is authored by Wallace, as its organization is entirely determined by its editor without the author being around to consult on it. It also has several sections, including one that is nearly a hundred pages long, that don't work and would clearly be revised and shortened by Wallace, who was an inveterate rewriter. Were I on the larger committee, I could understand why awarding Wallace the Putlizer posthumously would feel like a nice gesture, but inappropriate in this case.
Train Dreams was actually published a decade ago in The Paris Review and is really a long short story, not a novel. I could again understand the committee balking at awarding it the prize.
That leaves the third candidate, Swamplandia, a first novel by a writer of promise and, well, as Cunningham himself says, it has potential (and great moments) in abundance and some problems:
Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” was a first novel, and, like many first novels, it contained among its wonders certain narrative miscalculations—the occasional overreliance on endearingly quirky characters, certain scenes that should have been subtler. Was a Pulitzer a slightly excessive response to a fledgling effort?
However, it seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed. Other first novels, among them Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” have won the Pulitzer. One is not necessarily looking for perfection in a novel, or for the level of control that generally comes with more practice. One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which “Swamplandia!” possessed in abundance.
I haven't read Swamplandia. I cannot speak to its strenghts and weaknesses, but if Cunningham is saying that its weaknesses were obvious, perhaps the committee felt like those overwhelmed the strenghts that he perceived.
Some key as to why these three were picked lies in Cunningham's own admission as to what he focused on as a judge:
I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was—and am—a bit fanatical on the subject.
Earlier on, he lists what he feels the essential qualities of good literature are:
Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.
I agree with this, but I would add a specific point that I think Cunningham would not... there are all sorts of books that lack several things on that list, and books that consistently lack quality sentences that are still far superior to works that meet the checklist of craft. In those cases, what these books are actually doing is of such value and is so particular and so vividly realized that it trumps these concerns. (I'll also note that narrative is left entirely off his list, which is revealing).
This is, of course, the point where I'm supposed to reach for Philip K. Dick, a writer who was able to do amazing things with his often incompetently written work, but one needn't go to him when there are dozens of other examples of great writers with occasional-to-frequent bad sentences, including Patricia Highsmith, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Dreiser and Edith Wharton. Furthermore, one can compose a piece in which the sentences are beautiful but the work itself doesn't, well, work. This is the difference between good/great Annie Dillard (Total Eclipse, say) and bad Annie Dillard (Expedition to the Pole). The sentences in both are identically great, but one piece is beautiful and brilliant and coherent and overwhelming and interesting and strange and honest and the other is a turgid mess. And of course, this being subjective, there are people who will say different about both. My students, for example, tend to hate all Annie Dillard.
I believe craft is very important. I am not a craft-is-the-enemy type of person. As an artist, you should be striving to make your work ever better and working to expand your toolbox so that your work can do more. One hopes that writers are working on crafting great sentences. Certainly, on the book I'm working on, I'm working on doing this, and working fairly hard at it. But it worries me that Cunningham is so overly obsessed with sentences, because there's all sorts of things one misses when that's all they pay attention to. Particularly with the rise of the "lyric essay,"-- a form where, often, the nothing your essay has to say gains value by being said beautifully and where structural thorniness is its own reward regardless of what it has to do with content-- I worry that we're starting to value composition above all else. Furthermore, as craft can be taught easily while the ineffable action of a work cannot, I worry that we've started to judge work on the very checklist Cunningham articulates here as being inadequate rather than recognizing how few good-to-great books actually obey most of the craft works we're teaching.
On a related note, here's Zadie Smith talking about the future of the novel, and how all the focus on a particular kind of "good" craft has "had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked."
I have a great professor at Minnesota who is fond of pausing in the midst of a love-fest over a book he's assigned to say "what would you say if one of your peers brought this in to workshop?" so that we can see that we'd in fact tear it apart for not following "the rules." The lessen here is not that there are no rules, not that you should just throw together a bunch of bullshit and ignore issues of craft. But simply that it's not the only thing that matters. And context matters too, of course. My posts here on Parabasis are, in general, uncrafted (they're not even proofread!) because I think spontaneity is kind of important to this form. Published work elsewhere is carefully considered and written much more slowly.
UPDATE: Cunningham has also posted part two of the series, which discusses how hard it is to find the book that history will judge as great. This happens to not be what the Pultizer Prize is awarded for (the guidelines are for "distinguished fiction" on American themes) and also happens to be a problem we've discussed very recently here. I think at the end of the day, Cunningham and I have vastly different ideas of what makes for good to great fiction.