Two surprising displays of foolishness from two normally smart and thoughtful sources. First, there's NPR's look at forgotten Pulitzer Prize winners of years gone by:
It's sure to win a bit of immortality for the author, right? Well, not necessarily.
We're going out on a limb to say there are a bunch of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels you've probably never heard of — unless you're some kind of literary wunderkind.
Were these books great in their time, but only in their time? Were the Pulitzer jurors simply out to lunch? Or maybe the literary pickings are just slim some years.
There are so many fatuous assumptions here it's hard to know where to begin. It presumes, first of all, that the relative obscurity of the titles is a reflection of a book's quality as opposed to more likely causes of institutional memory and/or cultural amnesia, scarcely unfamiliar phenomena in contemporary America. It also assumes that awards are somehow intended to handicap posterity, which couldn't be sillier. Why should any Pulitzer judge's crystal ball be presumed to be any better than anyone else's? Lasting greatness is all too often overlooked in real time. (See Van Gogh, Vincent; Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus.) Incidentally, the comments box suggests the some of the books are not as forgotten as NPR proposes.
Then there's Marie Arana's shrill and silly squib suggesting elimination of the Nobel Prize for Literature, particularly disappointing coming from this generally acute critic. Yes, there has certainly been some rococo writing singled out for honors over the years. But recent winners also include Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee, Harold Pinter and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That scarcely suggests an award that should be done away with. Then there's this:
Often, the Academy lionizes those in line with its own left-wing beliefs: Sinclair Lewis, Gunter Grass, Jose Saramago, Pablo Neruda or Jean-Paul Sartre. The native-born Americans who have wrested the laurels make for a motley crew: the merely average and flagrantly anti-capitalist John Steinbeck, for instance, and the mediocre but multiculturally earnest Pearl S. Buck.
Does politics influence our Swedish friends? Hard to deny, although no one would consider Nobel Laureate Winston Churchill a leftist - but political motivations notwithstanding, a legitimate literary counter-argument can be made in defense of every author on this list except Buck. (Pinter's Nobel is another example, a politically motivated choice, perhaps, but a deserving author, nonetheless.) And unless Arana has enough German to read the likes of Jelinek in the original, she's on shaky ground delivering such high-handed pronouncements.
Instead, because a number of worthies have never won, Arana suggests doing away with the most internationally visible literary moment of our calendar year. Until 2007, Martin Scorsese had never won Best Director. Should the Oscars have therefore been ditched? Following Arana's closing paragraph logic, such as it is, there's not a single award anywhere that should be left standing.