In responding to Ann Patchett's piece in The New York Times where she contends that Eugenides's The Marriage Plot could have won if Eugenides hadn't previously won, a friend of mine said that if The Marriage Plot is representative of the year's finest fiction, then maybe it's a good thing no one won because, to paraphrase, a no winner might be good for American fiction, given the Pulitzer committee as earned the integrity to tell the writing community that it's falling short of greatness.
So, to that, I say:
Obviously if the Pulitzer committee doesn't think anything is worthy of their esteem then it's their prerogative to withhold the award. However, I find it rather silly that they have done so, regardless of the quality of fiction released last year.
The purpose of awarding the Pulitzer is to recognize the best writing. The purpose is not to serve as some carrot meant to inspire better writing. To make an analogy: while an Oscar for an art film can surely lead to more art films (based on the funding that becomes available due to the prestige/economic gain that comes with doing a film that is/may be Oscar worthy), works of literature, during their lonely process of creation, are removed from the kinds of economics/funding needs of films.
I can't imagine any serious author deciding to write a book "like" one that just won a Pulitzer. And I certainly can't see any serious author thinking "well, damn, I should write better" simply because the Pulitzer committee withheld the award this year. I suppose this might influence authors writing for non-literary reasons, but the Pulitzer doesn't exist to recognize writers of non-artistic motivations.
If the Pulitzer committee found none of the books they looked at worthy, perhaps they should reconsider the types of books that make it through the selection process and reach that committee. Perhaps it is that process and not the state of American fiction that is the problem.
My point being: I find it extremely hard to believe that NO work of fiction released in 2011 rose to the standards of excellence set by previous winners. Sure, some years the winner will be far superior to other years; but greatness is a fluid thing and exists within a spectrum. To withhold the award is rather pompous and only hurts the writing community that Pulitzer exists to support. Their decision this year takes away not only economic gain but it takes away readers who may have engaged with a work of literature because it held Pulitzer's seal.
I suppose it helps their "integrity" by having the option to withhold the award, but actually withholding the award isn't doing much, if anything, to help American letters. It is, however, giving plenty of writers plenty of reason to get up on their high horses.
And if it appears that I cut-and-paste this from an email, you're right. Consider it time saving since I wanted to write about this anyway.