As was written about just a few days ago on this blog, you have probably already heard the outrage over the Pulitzer’s three-person jury's decision not to award a prize for fiction this year. It’s the first time in 35 years this has happened. The implications are rather dire. Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize bestseller Bel Canto and last year’s State of Wonder (a book many at Indigo believe should have certainly been a Pulitzer finalist if not a winner itself), wrote last week in The New York Times that the decision not to award a prize leads most readers to assume “it was a bum year for fiction.” In other words, there was not a single American title published in 2011 worthy of the prize, not even amongst the three Pulitzer finalists which included: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published novel, The Pale King.
Like so many major publications and book loving institutions across North America, we at Indigo respectfully beg to differ. Were the decision ours, we would have selected a book that didn’t make the shortlist. A book we loved. That book is Chad Harbach’s debut, The Art of Fielding.
Set in a fictional liberal arts college in Wisconsin, The Art of Fielding is as much a campus novel as it is a novel about baseball. The sweeping scope of Harbach’s epic narrative is most easily laid out by looking at the story’s main characters, including a Herman Melville loving academic, a gay baseball player known to his team mates as the Buddha for the fluidity of his play, and a remarkably talented shortstop who comes down with a very serious psychological block that puts his future in jeopardy.
It shouldn’t matter if you know the book took ten years to make, or that it earned a reported $650,000 advance in a time when books are supposed to be in trouble. Impressive as the making-of story may be, ultimately a book should stand on the quality of its read.
The Art of Fielding would have been a worthy Pulitzer winner for containing not one but two love stories, both of which are so honestly wrought as to captivate even the most cynical reader. And wouldn’t a Pulitzer, an exclusively American literary award, befit a novel so beautifully written about that country’s national pastime? Sports enthusiasts are sure to be enthralled by the Rocky-like mentor relationship between the story’s central character, that gifted shortstop with a problem, Henry Skrimshander, and his catcher, Mike Schwartz. A hulking Jewish leader of the baseball team, this poetry reading, soulful, big lug is the one who first sees Henry’s talent at the book’s start. He is as loveable as Henry. You cannot write a great book without populating it by great characters and The Art of Fielding is chock-a-block full of them.
When I interviewed Harbach last fall for Indigo’s fiction blog he admitted he wasn’t at all sure that a book focusing on both academics and baseball would be all that “commercially viable.” Clearly his worries were unfounded. The novel debuted in The New York Times top ten and topped Amazon’s best book list of 2011 this past December.
In her piece about the Pulitzer, Patchett writes that one of her choices would have been finalist Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. She said there wasn’t “a sentence in that book that isn’t perfectly made.” Perhaps Harbach’s beautifully crafted novel, being as it was the author’s first ever book, is not up to the impeccable level of a Denis Johnson. But then how many readers out there are familiar with Johnson and since when did craft alone a great book make? The Pulitzer certainly has a long and snobby history of excluding great writers who are at fault if only because there works are accessible and pleasurable to read. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) never won the prize, nor, more recently, has John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany).
Speaking of the A Prayer for Owen Meany author, the title of my The Art of Fielding review was "A Prayer for Chad Harbach‘s Art of Fielding)," overtly referencing Irving’s beloved classic. There was, to my mind, that much of Irving’s big-hearted storytelling prowess, creating a fictive world so immersive, so densely populated with rich characters in the old-fashioned storytelling sense. Perhaps some books are just too readable, too enjoyable to win Pulitzers. Though, if you ask me, 2001 winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is exactly this kind of wonderful book, a far cry from the minimalist perfection of a Denis Johnson short or one by 2000 Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies), for that matter.
It’s also worth noting here, as I did in a previous blog post (When the Literary Award Goes to the Wrong Writer) that prize juries don’t always get it right. To cite my favourite example, in 1930 the Pulitzer for Fiction went to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy. This may have been a stupendous novel but I’m guessing it wasn’t quite at the level of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, both snubbed that year.
In that sense then, perhaps it doesn’t much matter. As I first wrote in my review of the book, The Art of Fielding is “the kind of loveable, readable book that could well loiter upon many a Staff Pick’s tables for years to come.” And indeed just the other day I was at my local Indigo and saw Harbach’s novel had indeed been chosen by one clever staff member. If only the Pulitzer board looked to Canadian booksellers for more advice.
OTHER WORTHY WINNERS COULD HAVE INCLUDED:
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder
Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot
Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams