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There will be a fiction prize tonight: Thoughts on the Pulitzer controversy

April 20, 2012 |  8:35 pm

Logo-times-book-prizesEditor's Note: This is an excerpt of remarks delivered by Times book critic David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes ceremony Friday evening, April 20, at USC's Bovard Auditorium.

Thank you, and welcome to the 32nd annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.  

I want to start tonight by reassuring you that we will be giving a fiction prize. More than one, in fact, as well as awards in many other categories, including poetry, biography, current interest, science writing, poetry … the list goes on. And yet, at the risk of sounding like a contrarian (or, even worse, a Pollyanna), I’d like to talk for a minute about what happened on Monday at the Pulitzers, when the board decided not to give a fiction prize. Was this, as some have argued, a slap in the face to American fiction? Or does it offer, rather, an opportunity to talk about how robust our literature has been and remains? For me, it’s the latter — as the shortlists of this year’s major literary prizes attest.

Pulitzer-prize-medalLook at the finalists for the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner, the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Times' Book Prizes, to name just a few, and you’ll find an almost total lack of overlap: 19 books for 23 slots. What does this mean? On the one hand, it suggests the breadth of good fiction being written, the sheer amount of work that sticks. But even more, it reminds us of the vagaries of awards, the subjective nature of the process, which to me has always meant that prizes are about the conversation they stir up as much as they are about who does or does not win.

When it comes to the Pulitzers, the decision not to award a fiction prize has led to a weeklong national discussion about (yes) literary fiction and what it means. That’s a good thing under any circumstance — as is the fact that three books, as opposed to one, have occupied the public discourse, and (let’s not forget) the marketplace. And it resonates, too, with why we’re here tonight: both to honor our prize recipients and to participate in an ongoing conversation about books and reading, a conversation that will continue over the next two days at USC. What we celebrate tonight are individual titles, 50 of them, as well as Robert Kirsch awardee Rudolfo Anaya and the Innovator’s Award recipient Figment. But we also pay tribute to the act of writing, and of reading, and even more, the interplay between them, the engagement by which we become, and maintain, a community.

 -- David L. Ulin

Photos: Los Angeles Times Book Prize logo; Pulitzer Prize medal      Credit: L.A. Times; www.pulitzer.org/theMedal