William H. Gass On The Pulitzers

The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill–not a sturdy mountain flower but a little wilted lily of the valley.

The essay from which that comes (collected in Finding a Form)is actually a lot kinder to the Pulitzer than the above might indicate (Gass has always been great at starting essays), although Gass remains steadfast in his mediocrity charge and backs it up fairly well.

Looking at the Pulitzer winners since Gass wrote this (1988, I believe), the prize's aim seems to have improved a tiny bit, albeit only by a tactic that Gass calls out in his essay: retrospectively anointing a known superstar. If you pull out the obvious picks, it is a fairly mediocre assemblage.



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