William Gaddis on the Pulitzer Prize: “The Ultimate Seal of Mediocrity”

Books, Literature, Writers

In William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape (2002), our embittered narrator excoriates the Pulitzer Prize:

. . . write what they want you’ll end up with a Pulitzer Prize follow you right to the grave. Maybe won the Medal of honor the George Cross even the Nobel but once you’ve been stigmatized with the ultimate seal of mediocrity your obit will read Pulitzer Prize Novelist Dies at whatever because they’re not advertising the winner no. No, like this whole plague of prizes wherever you look, it’s the prize givers promoting themselves, trying to rescue their thoroughly discredited profession of journalism. “The press is a school that serves to turn men into brutes,” Flaubert writes to George Sand “because it relieves them from thinking.” The prize winners? They’re just props, cartoonists, sports writers, political pundits, front page photos the bloodier the better for that instant of fame wrap the fish in tomorrow, good God how many Pulitzer Prizes are there? Over fifteen hundred entries, fourteen categories for journalists because if you started your bondage there you’re halfway home with that whole gang of sponsors, trustees, juries, God knows what who’ve survived that Slough of Despond and floated to the top. Just look at the next day’s New York Times, page after page bulging with self-congratulation with seven more categories to leech on, music, what they call drama and of course books where the Grey Lady finally got it both ways with their journalist who reviews books, like the misty-eyed ingenue but also destroys women writers and just for fairness crosses the gender line for an occasional assassination, give that lady a Pulitzer with oak leaf clusters! The books that are candidates are read by a jury whose decisions are passed up to the Olympian trustees with an eye to the multitude. We are thousands and they are millions, write the fiction they want or don’t write at all, ruling out Pound’s cry for the new, the challenging or what’s labeled difficult, so when Gravity’s Rainbow is being devoured by college youth everywhere and wins the National Book Award, its unanimous recommendation is overturned by the trustees for a double-talk spoof of academic vagaries by a bogus “Professor,” to everyone’s relief, and the author at peril escapes unblemished by the, no, no, no you can’t depend on it.

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6 thoughts on “William Gaddis on the Pulitzer Prize: “The Ultimate Seal of Mediocrity”

  1. I thought of the Gravity’s Rainbow Pulitzer incident this week when there was no fiction winner. But, of course, Gravity’s Rainbow was the unanimous fiction winner and was denied the prize. Quite different from deciding not to decide like they did this year. Pale King should have fucking won it, though.

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  2. Reminds me of something Cocteau said once in an interview: “It was Satie who said, later, the great thing is not to refuse the Legion of Honor—the great thing is not to have deserved it. Everything was turning about. All the old traditional order was reversing. Satie said Ravel may have refused the Legion of Honor but that all his work accepted it! If you receive academic honors you must do so with lowered head—as punishment. You have disclosed yourself; you have committed a fault.”

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  3. This reminds me of a quote from the (Pulitzer Prize Winning) Humboldt’s Gift – “The Pulitzer is for the birds, for the pullets. It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates. You become a walking Pulitzer ad, so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are Pulitzer prizewinner passes.”
    (enjoying your Gaddis posts BTW)

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    1. Ha! Love the quote (and the irony of the quote)—thanks for your kind words about the Gaddis stuff here; I’ve been trying to work myself up to a review of Agape Agape . . .

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