Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Playing it Safe with the Pulitzer: Olive Kitteridge and The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao

I finally found the time to read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a collection of thirteen loosely linked stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. Coincidentally, I just finished listening to (on my Ipod on daily dog walks) last year’s Pulitzer Prize Winner, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

As I have mentioned before, the Pulitzer Prize is seldom given to a collection of stories (Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, 1970; Stories of John Cheever, 1979; Robert Olen Butler’s Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, 1993, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, 2000). So I am happy that a group of stories won it this year, even though that pleasure is somewhat lessened by the fact that Random House has packaged the book as if it were a novel and that it seems to fulfill too slavishly Joseph Pulitzer’s original aim of the fiction prize—that it be given to a work published during the year “which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life…”

William H. Gass wrote a blistering attack on the Pulitzer in The New York Times Book Review (1985) that later appeared in his collection of essays, Finding a Form (1996). The most memorable quote from the essay: “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.” Complaining that the judges are often chosen to represent their race, religion, or sex, Gass insists that the only qualification a judge of the Pulitzer should have is “unimpeachable good taste, which immediately renders irrelevant such puerile pluralistic concerns as skin color, sex, and origin. Egalitarians shouldn’t give prizes and be too humble to receive them.” Gass says the Pulitzer has perceived an important truth about our culture: “Serious literature is not important to it.”

As much as I admire the work of William H. Gass, that judgment may be a bit extreme. I enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge and I enjoyed listening to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In the past few years, I have also got a lot of pleasure out of listening to Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Known World by Edward P. Jones—all Pulitzer Prize winners that I admire and none of which I would call mediocre. (You will probably notice that I more often listen to novels than read them; novels just require less of my attention than short stories do.)

I admire William H. Gass’s work a great deal. His novella Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife is one of my favorite books, and I thought his novel The Tunnel was brilliant and beautifully written. I think it is laughable that such a masterpiece would be passed over by the Pulitzer, while such a mediocre work as Richard Ford’s Independence Day would win the prize. However, Gass’s blanket condemnation of the Pulitzer Prize may be a bit of sour grapes.

I thought that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a good novel. The voice of the narrator is hard to resist. But it was just a novel—and a very traditional, safe, coming-of-age novel at that. The fact that the young protagonist is a Dominican nerd who plays video games and writes science fiction/fantasy does not make it less traditional and less safe. And the style, because it is in the voice of Junior, who appeared in the stories in Drown, is more than a little sloppy.

I liked Olive Kitteridge also, but I did not “love it,” as some reviewers have rhapsodized. The recurrent appearance of the grouchy schoolteacher Olive sometimes seems like a gimmick to me. She is the central figure in some stories, but is only referred to in others. Strout’s idea is to present her in relationships with several different people—her husband, her son, her neighbors, her colleagues, etc—and thus reveal her to be more complex than any one person thinks she is. Sometimes this device works, sometimes it seems forced, especially when extreme events are invented to reveal Olive’s hidden nature. Sometimes you like her; sometimes you think she is a bitch. You never really know what makes her do the things she does. All you can say is, “That’s just Olive.” Although Olive Kitteridge has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, in my opinion, it does not take the kind of chances, either in style or content, that Sherwood Anderson’s collection did in 1919.

William H.Gass’s opinion of the Pulitzer may be a bit extreme, but he is probably right that a novel or collection of stories that plays it safe is more apt to win the prize than one that takes chances with style, content, or theme.

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