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The Pulitzer Judges Were Dead Wrong

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The lack of picking a winner in fiction for the Pulitzer Prize was, in my mind, a serious lapse of credibility on the part of the judges.

It reminds me of a situation that I confronted a few years back when I was running the short story contest for the Wyoming Arts Council when I was residing in that state.

The modus operandi I devised for choosing our short story winners was to appoint two judges, usually college-level creative writing professors. With me as the third judge, the word went out statewide and we were open to short stories from anyone in Wyoming.

For a couple of years, everything went according to plan. We divided the stories among the three of us, picked the best of each crop then we all read the top ten stories we had individually picked.

I was a stickler for all of us to read every story that each judge had chosen. From this batch of choices, we culled what we thought were the best of the contributions, then we would whittle down those we thought were the best of the lot and award our three cash prizes and honorable mentions.

I have always felt that for a contest of this nature to be honest and ethical, the judges must be prepared to devote their time to give each entrant a full "hearing," otherwise the contest would be a sham. We owed the fidelity of the process to our contestants.

I applied this same standard to the Warren Adler Short Story Contest that I ran on the Internet for seven years. It is currently on hold since the enormous energy required had burned us out but we are considering restarting it in 2013. A book of all the winners in that contest is available on the Kindle.

In the third year of the Wyoming contest, we were enormously disappointed in the submissions and after painful deliberations, decided to forgo the prize. We felt awful about coming to this decision but, since our names were on the judging panel, we could not in good faith attach our names to a literary product that was not up to what we thought were the highest standards necessary to maintain the integrity of the contest.

In retrospect, by not awarding prizes that year, we were mistaken. The contest was to encourage Wyoming writers and we failed in that enterprise by lifting the bar based on our own elitist notions of what constituted literary standards. We might have been right in that notion but wrong in maintaining the goals of the Arts Council. I was subsequently asked to give up my role. They were probably correct.

The big difference between we, judges of the Wyoming contest, is that the three of us cumulatively read all of the submissions. As far as I knew, there were no middlemen and each judge spent the time and energy to consider every story.

Having had this experience, I am compelled to believe that the Pulitzer judges were wrong to not offer a prize for the best fiction.

It goes beyond credibility that the judges of the Pulitzer Prizes found the time to read cumulatively every submission in every category. How could they unless they devoted every waking hour to reading all the non-genre novels and short story collections submitted?

None of them could possibly make that claim. Indeed, because they could not, unless they will stand up and prove otherwise, how is it possible for them to pick the "best" and for the public to buy that they did, indeed, make personal judgments based on an honest reading of all the material.

I have never been a judge on a Pulitzer jury, but I will bet the barn that these judges depended on a filtering process that was made up of numerous people, allegedly "experts," who culled the material and sent their choices "upstairs" for the judges to read and make their judgments. I suppose it can be argued that there is no other way to whittle down the choices.

On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that there could be a bias in the selections based on all sorts of criteria like hype, notoriety, personal and business connections, publishing, academic and national politics in all its ramifications and whatever else comes to mind as a personal prejudice of the "filters" who make the picks that go to the final judges.

Even beyond those assumptions is the fact that many fine non-genre books fall between the cracks because of neglect, obscurity, lack if discoverability, personal preference and taste, and numerous other reasons. But then, we all know that life is unfair and I have no intention of setting off an inflammatory debate on the meaning of taste, merit, literary expertise, and the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of "best."

As for the idea that no book of fiction submitted during the year met the standards of the judges sounds patently absurd. The implication is suspect and I can't buy it. Not one book was worthy? Does it follow that, in the opinion of the judges, the reading public last year was short-changed on the quality of what was on offer?

That certainly does not speak well of the traditional publishing industry. Note that we dare not mention self-publishing. There has to be more to it than that.

I think the judges were dead wrong and did a disservice to the concept of the Pulitzer Prize and, worse, to the notion of literary achievement.

In a way, their refusal to give a prize for fiction casts a pall over the entire non-genre fiction landscape and is an insult to the many wonderful authors who provide eager readers with pleasure, insight, and an essential look into a parallel world that serves to enhance a greater understanding of the human condition.

Warren Adler's latest novel The Serpent's Bite will be published in September.

Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include "The War of the Roses," "Random Hearts" and the PBS trilogy "The Sunset Gang." He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information visit Warren's website at warrenadler.com.