Ann Patchett has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times, which waxes angsty over the failure of the Pulitzer committee to award a prize in fiction this year: This decision, besides affecting book sales, might lead readers to think there wasn’t any good fiction around. For as Patchett puts it, the Pulitzers are indispensable in drumming up the excitement that sends readers to bookstores, and play the same role in the literary world that the Oscars play in the world of cinema:
Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.
So presumably, having failed to receive a directive from the Pulitzer prize committee on which books to purchase the next time they are at Barnes and Noble or browsing on Amazon, people will read less fiction. Oh, the horror!
I’m genuinely perplexed by this. I can understand Patchett’s angst from the perspective of authors. The Pulitzers do provide a massive marketing boost to a book, and bump up sales. And thus, one easily understands her angst from the bookseller’s perspective. But as a reader, pardon my French, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the Pulitzers. I read plenty of fiction, and I have not once, never, ever, ever, felt more excited or pumped up on reading about the Pulitzer award for fiction. (I watch a lot of movies too, and I remain resolutely unexcited by the announcement of the Oscars.)
I read fiction because, to quote Patchett, I realize that
Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.
I started reading fiction as a child, and haven’t stopped yet; in my universe of reading the Pulitzers exert no influence whatsoever. I’m not saying this as a snob; I imagine it is the same for many other readers. Patchett is genuinely confused: The Pulitzers don’t make people read more; rather they channel that reading into particular directions, towards particular locations of influence and connections in the world of writing and publishing (If you imagine the Pulitzers are free of lobbying influence, I have a bridge to sell you.) Readers read fiction for the reasons Patchett cites above; those reasons will not go away just because a Pulitzer was not awarded this year.
Patchett’s argument is an economic one; she should keep it that level, and not make the crucial mistake of imagining that somehow readers’ lives have been impoverished by the failure of the Pulitzer prize committee to award a prize. Patchett should feel free to speak as an industry spokesperson, for the machinery of publishers and authors. But she should leave readers out of it.