I Read The News Today, Oh Boy!

April 16, 2012


The question was Tweeted by a fiction writer of my acquaintance. I saw it after being offline for several hours while I addressed the task of revision on a particular manuscript.

“Somebody has some splainin to do!” I tweeted back. “What does it mean that I intuited what this was about without having heard or read the news today, oh boy?” Congratulating myself on squeezing in two pop culture references (Ricky Ricardo and the Beatles) into a single 140-character message, I Googled for the story.

I knew that the Pulitzer Prizes were being announced today, so that gave me a clue about what had driven my friend to an all-caps exclamation that was less a question than an indication of shock unto outrage. She wasn’t expressing disappointment for herself — her first book came out in 2009 and won a number of prizes, although not the Pulitzer — but a bafflement that spread across my Twitter and Facebook news feeds (many of my friends are fiction writers). The Pulitzer Prize Board determined that all three finalists, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace, fell “below the standard of excellence fixed by the Pulitzer Prize Board.”

Train Dreams, one outraged commenter said, is a novella, at 128 pages. That commenter went on to characterize Swamplandia! as a gussied-up coming-of-age story with a tricksy title, and The Pale King as an effort by “the greatest novelist in the past thirty years” that should have won by default.

I can’t say anything about those assessments, because I have read only Train Dreams. The Russell title did kind of put me off, and undertaking David Foster Wallace frightens me, so vaunted is his reputation.

Winning a Pulitzer is a goal I announced when I was sixteen, in a letter to MacKinlay Kantor, who had won it for Andersonville in 1956. Mr. Kantor wrote back to me, encouraging me. I still have his letter.

The news about the Pulitzers broke on a day when I had actually followed Ron Carlson’s advice to “stay in the chair” and not be always visiting your friends Mr. Coffee and Mr. Refrigerator and Mr. Email. I took a deep breath and began the messy and often confusing work of revision on a story that, my notes remind me, began with a remark by a colleague about this time in 1992. In twenty years the idea had gone from a page or so of musing in my journal to an anecdote and then increasingly longer narratives until it became the piece I sent to Bread Loaf in 2009. And we know what happened in 2009. (If you are not a longtime reader of this space, you should also read the followup.) I did a half-hearted revision of it in 2010, before I spent the month at the Vermont Studio Center really learning revision.

The subject matter of this story still interests me, so I spent today with several copies of it spread about, colored highlighters to mark it, strategies for changing the voice, the time frame, the point of view, the outcome even. I barely raised my head for three hours. For someone who still hasn’t forgotten the rhythm of the school day, where life happens in forty-two minute segments, that’s some serious focus.

When I finally did visit my friend Mr. Facebook, only minutes after my friend’s initial all-caps outburst, my news feed and my Twitter feed were full of comments and questions about the No Award in Fiction brouhaha. I keep the device I surf the ‘net on when I am at my studio at a standup table in the corner of the room, where the wireless signal is best. I read for a while, and then, well, then, I decided to get back in the chair.

The Pulitzer for No Award in Fiction in 2012 has outraged a lot of people, as if they themselves had been snubbed. It’s seen as a comment on the quality of contemporary fiction, a slap in the face to the authors and the books that did become finalists, a denigration of all of us who scribble scribble in the hope of recognition. But for reasons I can’t explain, I went back to work, my resolve to keep on keepin’ on strengthened rather than diminished.

There I was, surrounded by the detritus of more than twenty years of telling people I am a fiction writer, the folders of drafts, the notes from workshops, the posters and talismans I keep around for encouragement (“That thing you’re writing is awesome!”). I took an inventory of every single thing I have at some stage of development, and I made my own poster.

The photo is a little fuzzy, but what it shows is this: on the left, Post-it flags with the title of every piece of short fiction that I have in some advanced stage of development, six stories altogether. In the middle, my longer fiction, including the historical novel that got me into this life to begin with but that has been stalled for nearly ten years — five ideas. On the right, three pieces of narrative nonfiction.

And at the bottom? A flag with the title of the brief memoir that won me public recognition and publication last fall.

Time to start moving those other flags down!

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