The Pulitzer people announced their 2012 winners this week and, for the first time in thirty-five years, they didn’t award a winner for fiction. As someone who, three or four years ago, made it a goal to read each year’s winner I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t one. I’ve come to rely on the Pulitzer people to make one choice for me each year. Like many readers and lovers of books, who don’t have bottomless pockets filled with cash to spend on books, I’m careful when I choose what books to buy and read and The Pulitzer is arguably one of the most respected, albeit subjective, gauges of literature in this country. (Yes, I know I can enjoy reading books for free by getting a library card but, based on my reading habits, it’s probably cheaper to buy the books I read.)
Of the three finalists - Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams - Russell’s debut novel is the one I’m most familiar with. I have read Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, however, and I almost picked up a copy of Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men a while back.
The fact, though, that a winner wasn’t chosen because neither finalist garnered enough votes to push it passed the other two is another clear indicator - in addition to book sales, for instance - that what makes for a good book is subjective to the reader. There are some who put down genre fiction but, clearly, with the popularity that YA vampire/monster stories like The Twilight series have garnered and the growth of YA dystopia (The Hunger Games and Legend) there is a place for all kinds of books. This reinforcement that ‘good’ books are subjective is a good sign for indie authors.
With the economy what it is and with many traditional publishing houses not gambling on new writers, many writers, right off the bat or after getting rejected by agents, have turned to various forms of independent publishing (e-book formatting, print-on-demand, small runs at a small printer, etc). Yes, there are many indie books that are pretty bad. (Yes, my last sentence does sound subjective but I think there are some universal truths on writing; things like consistency of voice and POV, the ability to have a story thread throughout the novel, unique dialogue, etc.) Based on the positive responses my book received from agents and other writers before I published, I like to think it isn’t one of the baddies. I do know, however, that some people will love Back Kicks And Broken Promises while others will loathe it and others will find it ‘comme ci, comme ca,’ if not hate it altogether. There are also some traditionally published books that are not well received. Just read any review supplement in any Sunday edition of a national newspaper and you’ll read critics saying a variety of different things on some of the same books. Take a look at Entertainment Weekly magazine’s Books section. The magazine’s reviewers give the books actual letter grades. I’ve agreed with some, disagreed with others and I’ll admit that I’ve been influenced by the grade a book got when deciding whether and/or when to buy it.
The reason that no Pulitzer winner for fiction is good for indies is simply because it reinforces what I’ve tried to point out - that readers will find different books likable, lovable, loathe-worthy. Readers’ tastes are subjective and their responses to a particular book could be different from one day to the next. I read Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer fiction winner by Paul Harding about how a father and son, through tragedy, come to terms with the world and each other. It’s well written, a quick read and quite touching but I still felt frustrated when I was done with it. So, the fact that traditionally published books, by some well known and respected authors, that were aided by an agent’s efforts and resulted in some kind of monetary advance did not win, gives us - indie authors - hope. Perhaps an indie book will never appear on the list of accepted entries or finalists for a Pulitzer but, if the Pulitzer people can’t find a book to praise from the traditionally published, it (and the readers who follow the organization), may have to look elsewhere. And, the only alternative to traditionally published, whether e-book or print book, is indie published.
There are many book awards for indie authors. There are the Indie Reader Discovery Awards and Writer’s DigestSelf-Published Book Awards. These are good opportunities for indie books to get recognized and praised. They’re great marketing tools and give the authors a sense of validation if their books do well. Ideally, though, at least from my opinion, is for all books to be regarded together. Fiction is fiction regardless of who wrote it and who published it. If it does, for you, what you think and feel good fiction should do then it’s good fiction.
We read for lots of different reasons. For readers of fiction, I’m sure one of those reasons is old-fashioned enjoyment. Just make sure you’re actually enjoying what you read.