Three Books that Could Have Won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize (But Didn't) and Why You Should Read Them Anyway

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Ten thousand big ones awarded for “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life” (per the Pulitzer Website), not to mention the boost in book sales for the winner,put the Pulitzer Prize among the most coveted prizes in the literary world. But this year, for the first time in 35 years, the Pulitzer Prize Board failed to award a prize in fiction.

The Selection Process

How is this possible? The selection process works like this: A three-member fiction jury faces the daunting task of reviewing hundreds of books over a few short months and settling on three finalists to send to the Pulitzer Board. The board reads the books, meets for two days, and determines a winner by majority vote. This year the board failed to reach a majority. End result: no winner.

Rather than jump to conclusions about the board’s discontent with all three titles, why not indulge in a more optimistic line of thinking: perhaps this year’s finalists were so good the board found it impossible to choose a favorite? It’s not completely implausible. The three finalists for 2012 were Denis Johnson’s  “Train Dreams”, Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia”, and David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King”; all were critically acclaimed and all three books were included in NPR’s “10 best books of 2011” as well as “The New York Times” 100 Notable Books of 2011.

The Three Finalists

1. “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson

“Train Dreams” is the story of Grainier, a logger and hauler, born in 1886 and sent to live in the untamed woods of the Idaho Panhandle after the death of his parents; it is the haunting tale of an everyman hardened by hard work and personal tragedy—above all things–a survivor. First published in “The Paris Review,” “Train Dreams” follows Grainier’s highs and lows across eight decades of American life, but mostly takes place in the 1920s.  The author, Denis Johnson, is a poet, playwright and novelist, and a 2007 National Book Award Winner for his Vietnam War novel, “Tree of Smoke”.  A novella, “Train Dreams” is only 116 pages long, and is the shortest of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalists (and as such may prove to be the least intimidating for many readers).

2. “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

The tale of a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) living and working in a Florida theme park in the Everglades, “Swamplandia!” is award winning-short-story-writer Karen Russell’s debut novel. The Bigtree’s thirteen-year-old daughter Ava narrates much of this book about the ups and downs of a self-invented faux-American-Indian showbiz tribe.  Ava unlike her siblings, is determined to become a great gator wrestler like her mother, Hilola, the star attraction of Swamplandia, the shabby theme park from which the book gets its title. Featured in  “20 Under 40” fiction issue of “The New Yorker,” Karen Russell was also a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree for her first book of short stories “St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”  The only of the three finalists to be listed on “The New York Times” 10 Best Books of 2011, “Swamplandia!” is exciting and odd, an alluring mixture of real-world-grit, suspense and fantasy crammed with vivid language and imagery run wild.

3. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Painstakingly pieced together after David Foster Wallace’s death by his editor, Michael Pietsch, “The Pale King” is the story of an IRS agent and his officemates. It’s the somehow epic, hilarious, and sometimes heartbreaking story of the dull day-to-day demands on IRS employees in 1980s Peoria, Illinois as only Wallace could tell it. Considered one of the most influential writers of the last two decades, David Foster Wallace received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1997 and his novel “Infinite Jest” was named one of “The 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the Present” by “Time” Magazine in 2005.  While “The Pale King” is certainly a challenging read, and is over 500-pages-long, it’s more grounded in reality than his masterpiece, “Infinite Jest”, and therefore likely to be more approachable for many readers.  Wallace spent the last years of his life studying tax texts, and observing accounting students, professors and professionals to create this compelling tale, and his last work, unfinished as he left it, is well worth a read.

Bonus: Already read this year’s finalists? Why not read last year’s Pulitzer Prize Fiction winner, “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, a story about growing up, up and old in the digital age?


Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at, read about her travels at, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Phil Roeder.


  1. Chris

    Thanks for sharing your notes, Brandon, I’m going to give them a look!

  2. Read.Learn.Write

    Sure! Thank you for the great timely post.

  3. Read.Learn.Write

    One of the things that strikes me about this is that the jurors and living authors have spoken out. Some have expressed their frustration with the process. All assume that the board will not talk about why they did what they did.

    Maureen Corrigan, one of the jurors, even said “We’ll never know why the Pulitzer board declined to award the prize this year, because, as is the board members’ right, they’ve drawn their Wizard of Oz curtain closed tight. We jurors have heard only the same explanation that everyone else has heard: The board could not reach a majority vote on any of the novels.”

    I wonder why the Board wouldn’t want to explain themselves?

  4. Chris

    I’ve been wondering that myself. I’ve read quite a bit about the issue. On NPR’s Morning Edition Susan Larson is quoted as saying that the jury was “shocked, angry, and very disappointed” that the board didn’t choose a winner. Understandable, after carefully reading 300 books in only a few months time and then the board doesn’t award the prize. To add insult to injury, since the board’s deliberations are confidential, the jurors get no feedback and have no idea why none of their selections won. Prize money aside, maybe the failure to select a winner will encourage people to read al three books….

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      That’s true. Maybe something good will come of it.

  5. Andrew Blackman

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the post! Have to admit I haven’t read any of the three, so it’s good to have a crib sheet 🙂 The Pale King is the one I’ve heard most about, and the reviews I’ve read have been quite mixed. I think it’s always hard when things are pieced together after someone’s death – I’m often left wondering what the “real” book would have been like. I remember reading Edward Said’s posthumous On Late Style and feeling that way.

    What amazes me is that nobody from the board has come out publicly and explained the decision. I took a look at the Pulitzer website and there are 20 members, mostly top journalists and editors and journalism professors, people who should theoretically be committed to transparency and openness. My guess is it’s only a matter of time before one of them spills the beans – maybe in tomorrow’s Sunday supplements??

  6. Chris

    Thanks for your comment, Andrew. I don’t know. Maybe. I haven’t read “Infinite Jest”, which is generally considered Wallace’s masterpiece, so I don’t have a lot to compare “The Pale King” to….but something tells me it might have been an even longer novel. I can understand why some judges didn’t want to award the prize to something puzzled together by a third-party after the author’s death, although on the other hand, this is Wallace’s last chance to win a Pulitzer, even if it is posthumous. Hmmm…

Comments are closed.