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

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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First Page of an Early Draft of Blood Meridian

 

Nice article at Slate on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, touching on how “all the way to galley proof in 1984, McCarthy whittled Blood Meridian down into the lean nightmare we now know. He cut whole characters and became more and more sparing of his description of the ones that remained. This was nowhere more pronounced than with the character of the kid, the nameless ruffian and pseudo-protagonist of the tale.” Good stuff. (Thanks to Garrett for alerting me to it).

 

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

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.

Books Acquired, 2.16.2012 — Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

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The kind folks at Picador sent a nice box of titles to Biblioklept World Headquarters a few weeks ago; I’ve had enough time to mull over them a bit and do something of a write-up. Here goes.

Next month, coinciding with her new novel By Blood (from FS&G), Picador re-releases (in new editions) two from Ellen Ullman:Close to the Machine and The Bug, which features a new introduction by Mary Gaitskill. Machine is a sort-of-memoir about the dawn of the tech-era; Ullman recounts her experiences as a female software engineer finding a place in the boys’ club of programming. Love these covers:

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The Bug, a novel is tech without the noir, cyber without the punk—something different and fresh. It reminds me of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs only because I can’t think of what else to compare it to. Pub’s write-up:

Ellen Ullman is a “rarity, a computer programmer with a poet’s feeling for language” (Laura Miller, Salon). The Bug breaks new ground in literary fiction, offering us a deep look into the internal lives of people in the technical world. Set in a start-up company in 1984, this highly acclaimed first novel explores what happens when a baffling software flaw—a bug so teasing it is named “the Jester”—threatens the survival of the humans beings who created it.

The Bug features a playfulness of the page, a willingness to examine the intersection of code and poetry. Example:

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Alice McDermott also gets reissues: A Bigamist’s Daughter and That Night, which my wife picked up. That Night was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. It seems a little sexy and dangerous. Again, pub’s blurb:

It is high summer, the early 1960s. Sheryl and Rick, two Long Island teenagers, share an intense, all-consuming love. But Sheryl’s widowed mother steps between them, and one moonlit night Rick and a gang of hoodlums descend upon her quiet neighborhood. That night, driven by Rick’s determination to reclaim Sheryl, the young men provoke a violent confrontation, and as fathers step forward to protect their turf, notions of innocence belonging to both sides of the brawl are fractured forever. Alice McDermott’s That Night is “a moving and captivating novel, both celebration and elegy…a rare and memorable work” (The Cleveland Plain Dealer).

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Two history books in the package: Orlando Figes’s The Crimean War and Red Heat by Alex von Tunzelmann.

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Here’s an excerpt from the Figes book (which is, uh, about the Crimean War):

Two world wars have obscured the huge scale and enormous human cost of the Crimean War. Today it seems to us a relatively minor war; it is almost forgotten, like the plaques and gravestones in those churchyards. Even in the countries that took part in it (Russia, Britain, France, Piedmont-Sardinia in Italy and the Ottoman Empire, including those territories that would later make up Romania and Bulgaria) there are not many people today who could say what the Crimean War was all about. But for our ancestors before the First World War the Crimea was the major conflict of the nineteenth century, the most important war of their lifetimes, just as the world wars of the twentieth century are the dominant historical landmarks of our lives.

Red Heat is not the novelization of the 1988 Schwarzenegger buddy-cop film (nor, sadly, a novelization of the 1985 Linda Blair women-in-prison film of the same name). Von Tunzelmann’s book examines the relationship between the island nations to the U.S.’s immediate south to America and Russia. Like I said, no Schwarzenegger, but plenty of strong men. From Jad Adam’s review in The Guardian:

Red Heat deftly juggles the stories of three countries – Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic – and their relationship with the superpowers, where things were not as they seemed. Von Tunzelmann asserts that the political labels of the region were a sham: “democracy” was dictatorship; leaders veered to the rhetoric of the right or left according to advantage; a communist was anyone, however rightwing or nationalistic, whom the ruling regime wanted tarnished in the eyes of the US