The New Yorker recently published Michael Cunningham’s response to why there was no winner for this year’s Pulitzer fiction prize (“Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year“). What’s instructive from a fiction writer’s perspective is Cunningham’s explanation of what we look for in stories:
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.
But what exactly is the fire? Hard to say. The Pulitzer fiction judges this year were Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan, NPR book critic and a professor of English at Georgetown University, and Susan Larson, former book editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and host of “The Reading Life” on NPR.
Cunningham writes, “Utter objectivity, however, is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable.” He illustrates this by describing what each judge was hoping for in the stories they read:
Maureen was drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story. She did not by any means require a conventional story, conventionally told, but she wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed.
Susan was a tough-minded romantic. She wanted to fall in love with a book. She always had reasons for her devotions, as an astute reader would, but she was, to her credit, probably the most emotional one among us. Susan could fall in love with a book in more or less the way one falls in love with a person. Yes, you can provide, if asked, a list of your loved one’s lovable qualities: he’s kind and funny and smart and generous and he knows the names of trees.
But he’s also more than amalgamation of qualities. You love him, the entirety of him, which can’t be wholly explained by even the most exhaustive explication of his virtues. And you love him no less for his failings. O.K., he’s bad with money, he can be moody sometimes, and he snores. His marvels so outshine the little complaints as to render them ridiculous.
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.
Cunningham’s letter makes a defense of the three judges role in the Pulitzer fiction flop, but perhaps more useful for the rest of us is the insight it gives to how fiction is read, appreciated, judged.