Sunday, July 10, 2011

ALMOST AUGUST and other things.

E.Ethelbert Miller asks, "Did you and August Wilson ever discuss maybe collaborating on a project?" Initially, I was hesitant about responding to this question because I wasn't sure of exactly the best way to angle into it. But now I see that the question does provide a seed I can water a little bit until it blossoms into a bittersweet story---or at least an anecdote---about racial politics and literary prizes in America. I guess it's time to get this off my chest.

August Wilson and I did, in fact, discuss writing a play together one evening, a play we would do with Pulitzer prize author Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love. Oscar was in Seattle that day, probably doing book promotion, and the three of us sat down for dinner. As so often happens when writers get together, they start blue-skying ideas, and getting themselves rather exercised in the process. A play we three would do together? Why the hell not?

But I remember a different dinner I had with August, one of our 8-to-10 hour talkathons at the Broadway Bar and Grill on Seattle's Capitol Hill, and that night he revealed to me that Oscar had been one of the three nominating judges for the Pulitzer prize in fiction when my novel Dreamer was published in 1998. I should mention at this point that the editors at my publisher Scribner were very excited about Dreamer and felt it should be awarded a Pulitzer that year. I believe their enthusiasm was justified. Except for its uncompromising philosophical engagements (When he interviewed me about the novel, Washington Post reporter David Streitfeld asked me, "Do you think this book is too smart for general readers?"), Dreamer had several characteristics of  Pulitzer fiction, the most important of which is that it was about the American experience and one of our most important citizens in the second half of the 20th century. 

I make this observation from much experience. I've been on the nominating committee three times. That committee does not make the final decision on the books the nominating judges select. Rather, a board, which generally doesn't involve any literary artist, selects the winner. According to August, when Oscar served on the nominating committee, he asked, "What about Dreamer?" And he was told, "We're not looking at any black books this year."
This is a story I'm relating second-hand, perhaps even third-hand (since August says he heard it from Oscar). But I don't doubt its veracity. For my own first two experiences of serving on the nominating committee were frustrating---the board selected our second and even third choices rather than our first choices, though that was not the case in 2009 when they selected our first choice, Tinkers by Paul Harding.

As Salon book editor Laura Miller reported in her 2000 article on literary prizes, "David Kipen, book review editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, says, 'The Pulitzer is judged and approved by journalists, who tend to be smart people and unimpeachable in their opinions on journalists and critics, but when it comes to the writing of fiction or poetry I'm a little more skeptical about them than I would be of the National Book Foundation'." 
Miller also says in her article that "the prize for fiction has always been the most controversial of the Pulitzers...The postmodern novelist William Gass denounced the Pulitzer in a notoriously dyspeptic 1985 essay, charging that the prize 'takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses,' and complaining that it caters to 'a large, affluent, mildly educated middle class which has fundamentally the same tastes as the popular culture it grew up with, yet with pretensions to something more, something higher, something better suited to its half-opened eyes and spongy mind.' Although Gass' jeremiad prompted immediate cries of sour grapes, it's true that the Pulitzer is seen as the most middlebrow American literary prize."

And she also says this:
"The most important thing readers should keep in mind about the Pulitzer Prize is that it's awarded by a board of journalists, and that journalism is the primary focus of the Pulitzer Prizes. Some publishers feel that the Pulitzer gets better publicity than the NBA because when the prizes are announced, they make the front page of newspapers nationwide...The press may be Pulitzer-crazy, but they're mostly interested in the awards they're eligible for themselves...The fiction jury and the board often haven't seen eye to eye, though it's hard to say who's got a better record for picking real winners. In 1941, the board rejected all three unmemorable titles recommended by the jury in favor of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, which the chair of the jury had faulted for 'a style so mannered and eccentric as to be frequently absurd.' In 1974, a jury of formidable literary cred -- Elizabeth Hardwick, Alfred Kazin and Benjamin DeMott -- enthusiastically endorsed Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, but the board hated the book so much they decided not to award a prize at all that year. So, a rule of thumb: The journalism-oriented Pulitzer Board shows much better judgment when the novelist in question writes like a journalist."

Laura Miller's candid discussion of the Pulitzer judging process rings true for two of the three times I've been a nominating judge, and apparently the time Oscar did, too.

       OK, now back to Ethelbert's question. 

Over dinner we talked up a story outline for the play and August, feeling playful, decided he would poke me in the ribs by saying, "I'll write about the poor black people, Chuck can write about the middle class ones." Ouch. (I was tempted to throw a salt shaker on the table at him.) And so the evening ended. But the very next day I discovered in my fax machine five pages of the play August had written overnight. They were good and he was serious about this collaboration. But, alas, neither Oscar or I ever got our acts together.

So somewhere in my files there are five August Wilson pages for a play that almost was. I'm willing to bet there is a copy of those pages among August's papers, too.

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