I’ve been studying the recent Pulitzer prize-winning novels this week. If you mostly write genre fiction (as I do) the Pulitzer is a distant dream, since it’s mainstream fic all the way, but I still like to try to understand what draws the attention of the judges.
So far, my attention has been caught by how lush the descriptions usually are. In genre fiction, we’re usually describing something that does not exist in the real world, so our descriptions are trying to evoke exotic scenes in your mind. The Pulitzer type of novel seems to spend a lot of time describing things that are already familiar to most of us (Getting ready for work, cooking dinner, or tying your shoes) and lavishes microscopic attention on these images.
They’re not usually big books, though. For someone used to reading Big Fat Fantasy, one of these volumes can seem painfully thin– “Tinkers” by Paul Harding is so short that you might wonder how anyone could have considered it a novel. It has all the trappings of a winner, though– images that are sharpened by layers and layers of description.
It’s made me painfully aware of the limitations of my own craft. I don’t “do” this style of description, nor do I know many people who do. It seems to be a mainstream specialty. Even their genre-influenced writers, Junot Diaz for example, only use genre as a type of cant. They use the words, but they use them as descriptions. It’s more like hearing your slightly snotty elder cousin describing your love of Star Trek and LOTR (Lord of the Rings, for you non-genre folks), just to mock you and make himself sound really clever.
Of course, these authors aren’t exactly your ordinary everyday writers, either. Harding has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Elizabeth Strout is on the faculty of an MFA program (Queens University, in N.C.). Junot Diaz has an MFA from Cornell and is on the faculty of MIT. It’s easy to start thinking of these novels as prizes awarded to an in-crowd, given only to pieces that all show the same signs of obsessive study of English courses and years spent learning how to lay it on thick.
That misses some of the value of the literature itself (come on, the images ARE good and the insights can be painfully acute) but can also be seen as a fair assessment. Plot is not a big part in many of these novels. Sometimes, they’re even written as episodic pieces, published in little literary journals as short stories that are sometimes little better than vignettes. If you’re a lover of a good plot, you may come away with a sour taste in your mouth.
Me, I’m not sure what I think. I’ve only taken four English courses (and I dropped one of them since I hated the prof.) All of my study of writing has been hands-on and done alone. And I’m okay with that– I wouldn’t want to be an English professor. I’m not really interested in literature in that way. Maybe I’m just a little too workmanlike . . . I want my words to get the job done, not to just sound pretty. And the job, as far as I see it, is to tell a good story with some real action and suspense and tragedy.
So, I guess I’d say that my overall impression of the winners is “I’ll never write like this.”
And I have to believe that it’s okay. I won’t win a Pulitzer that way, though, that’s for sure.