Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Pulitzer -- yawn -- prizes

The Literary Saloon informs us that this year's Pulitzer prizes have been announced.

Now there was a time when the Pulitzers carried some weight with me. That was back in the days when they awarded prizes to stuff that was halfway entertaining and interesting. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the best play award in 1955, for instance. But personally I stopped paying much attention in 1979, when Sam Shepherd's play Buried Child came top of the pile. I saw the original production in the Village, and mighty tedious it was too. Derivative, also. When I came out of the theatre the man in front of me said to his companion, 'Well, I guess I know too much about the history of the theatre to enjoy that one.' Me too. There were bits of everybody in it.

As for the fiction, that prize has also gone increasingly highbrow over the years. Back in 1928, the winner was Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I read that when I was 12, with no difficulty at all, and it was an enormous seller, all over the world, because it was a good read and contained some interesting ideas (why do some good people die and some bad people live?). Even Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (1952) could, I think, be described as popular fiction. But who has heard of, much less read, Empire Falls, by Richard Russo (the 2002 winner)?

Anyway, this year's fiction winner is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Just for fun, I looked it up on Amazon.com. The average review score is four stars, and there are the usual tributes to the beautiful writing and such. But if you scroll down a bit you find the following:
This is a novel only in the barest sense. There is little plot, and what plot there is, is so mundane and pedestrian as to smack of a first year literature student struggling to piece together various story lines from past read works. Gilead is really the musings and sometimes arcane philosophy of Ms. Robinson, written in various letters by an underachieving preacher. The book is a tedious read, and after the first few pages, one reluctantly treads on, hoping for some epiphany, or at least a surprise along the way. It never comes, and after a while the reader only wants to finish the boring treatise.
So don't say you weren't warned.

5 comments:

Andrew said...

But, your grumpiness, I have to refer back to your earlier posts in which you noted that tedium (in the minds of academia) is the standard for "greatness." If true, the choice of Gilead makes all the sense in the world.

Dennis said...

You're missing out.

Empire Falls is a populist, generational saga, soapy, page-turning sort of book. Soon to be a major motion picture with Ed Harris, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Helen Hunt.

Hardly the kind of etiolated artsy sort of thing you're complaining about.

James Warner said...

Yes, his Grumpiness is utterly unfair to Richard Russo, who is a very entertaining author.

I don't know about the new Marilynne Robinson yet, but I just went out and bought a copy, partly because it annoys me to read a condemnation of a book by someone who hasn't read it...

Ben said...

I think your preconceptions of recent Pulitzer fiction winners are way off base. Aside from Empire Falls, two other recent winners spring to mind. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay --- a novel in which the birth of the comic book industry, golems, escape artists and WWII play an integral role; Middlesex --- an eminently readable family saga narrated by a hermaphrodite. Both have high entertainment value in addition to addressing fundamental human questions.

That said, I haven't yet read Gilead, so I can't vouch for it.

Anonymous said...

Marilynne Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, is magnificent, although I cannot vouch for Gilead. I've often noted that critics and establishment types often reward an artist for their previous work as a kind of penance for missing them first time around.