When the Pulitzer Prize committee ushered in its 2012 winners yesterday, it was no surprise that media outlets such as The New York Times, the Associated Press and the Huffington Post racked up journalism awards. But did you notice one glaring omission among this year’s Pulitzer Prizes? For the first time in 35 years, the committee declined to choose a fiction winner. That little blank line has sparked criticism throughout the blogosphere, and especially among leading literary critics, who say the three nominated works of fiction are more than worthy of the golden Pulitzer seal.
It begs the question: was there really no great fiction writing in 2011?
Of course not. Pulitzer prize or not, the three finalists, Denis Johnson (Train Dreams), Karen Russell (Swamplandia!) and David Foster Wallace (The Pale King) have written exceptional novels. And I doubt that losing the Pulitzer has diminished their personal views about their works.
As writers, we tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves. There’s the internal pressure of wanting to produce the most meaningful writing we can. And then there are all the external pressures: the need to satisfy our target audience, wow reviewers and critics, and if we’re lucky enough, even win over Pulitzer Prize committees. Awards and accolades are a nice boost to our egos, but the moment we let these outside influences steer our writing is the moment it’s no longer ours.
The same is true when it comes to publishing. These days, perhaps the biggest award of all is getting published. And despite the best efforts of worthy authors, this prize is getting more and more difficult to attain. Does that mean your book wasn’t worthy? Does that mean you should change your book or your writing style? No, no and no.
Writer, in light of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, I urge you to ditch award aspirations and let your writing be defined by your inner critic, and your inner critic alone. It isn’t the award that defines the work. It’s the work that defines the award.