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Bumbling Pulitzer Board Fails to Award Fiction Prize

"Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

April 18 (Bloomberg) -- The Pulitzer Prize Board had three fiction finalists to choose from, and they couldn’t manage to pick a winner.

Maybe they should have been locked in a room without food and drink until they finally settled on Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” -- a first novel about an odyssey through the Everglades.

The heroine is Ava Bigtree, who has grown up wise beyond her 13 years in her family’s alligator theme park. Agile and inventive, the book is also incredibly funny, and a clear winner over “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson and “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace.

It’s a total dereliction of duty for the board not to anoint a winner.

Some will blame the two-part process. For each Pulitzer category, a jury winnows the submissions to arrive at three finalists. It forwards those to the board, which chooses the ultimate winner.

None of the three fiction finalists captured a majority of votes.

Why didn’t the board members keep voting? Were they too self-absorbed to think of the message they were sending to the world -- that no novel was worth a Pulitzer? They could have shipped the three books back to the jury to choose -- or asked them to come up with a few more books.

Here are five more works of fiction worthy of the prize.

“Open City” by Teju Cole is a subtle, intriguing first novel about a Nigerian psychiatrist who is doing a fellowship at Columbia Presbyterian in New York. He spends his free time strolling the city streets, talking to people he meets, thinking about books, movies and art.

“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides is a comic, rueful dissection of a young love triangle and the hard lessons of that “last period of total freedom” -- the college years. Madeleine is an English major at Brown in the early 1980s, pondering semiotics and Jane Austen. Leonard and Mitchell are the two men who love her. The book follows them from Rhode Island to Cape Cod, India and New Jersey as they create their adult selves.

“The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach is another stellar first novel, this one about a gifted shortstop at a small Wisconsin college whose career goes awry after he beans a teammate in the dugout with a wild throw. There’s enough baseball to satisfy fans, and the academic setting lets Harbach have fun with students and faculty.

“State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett sends an American drug researcher into a modern heart of darkness in the Amazon jungle. Like her best-selling “Bel Canto,” Patchett’s latest is a rare combination of literary and popular, full of big ideas yet smoothly written and packed with intrigue and suspense.

“Binocular Vision” by Edith Pearlman won this year’s National Book Critics Circle award (for which I actually was a judge) and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The 75-year-old author has been quietly publishing short-story collections with small presses since 1996. Imagine the hoopla if she had won the Pulitzer as well.

(Laurie Muchnick is the book editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include a review of HBO’s “Veep.’

To contact the writer of this review: Laurie Muchnick in New York at lmuchnick@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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