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Publishing industry angry that Pulitzers snubbed fiction

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One day after the Pulitzer Prize board said it would not award a Pulitzer in fiction for the first time in 35 years, the publishing industry was still seething, with some going as far as offering surrogate winners.

On Tuesday Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally Jackson Books in New York, said she would present her own awards to “The Great Night” by Chris Adrian, “We the Animals” by Justin Torres and “Pym” by Mat Johnson.

Publishers Weekly posted a list of books from 2011 that could have been chosen, including Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding” and “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka.

On Twitter, Doubleday suggested that the Twitterverse choose its own Pulitzer winner (using the hashtag (POUND)TwitterPulitzer), immediately prompting nominations like “The Leftovers” by Tom Perrotta and “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Striking a rare note of optimism, publishers of the three finalists in the category said they hoped the books would nevertheless get a boost in a rare year without a winner to take the spotlight.

“In years past it’s the Pulitzer winner that captures all the attention and all the sales,” said Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Alfred A. Knopf. “But since this year there was not a winner and there’s much conversation about the finalists, this may be an opportunity and a catalyst for sales.”

The collective shock and sputtering in the publishing industry began Monday, when the Pulitzer Prize board announced the winners in 21 categories of journalism, letters, drama and music.

Two categories had no winner: editorial writing and fiction.

Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzers for Columbia University, explained how it happened:

A winner is usually selected in a two-step process in which a three-member fiction jury reviews hundreds of books, settles on three finalists and sends those finalists to the Pulitzer board. The board then reads the books and meets for two days to determine a winner. A majority is required, and this year the judges could not come up with one.

“Whenever they make a decision, it’s not meant to be a statement about fiction in general,” Gissler said Monday. “It’s just a statement that none was able to receive a majority.”

As a group, the finalists were unorthodox and, as many people in the industry suggested, may have given the Pulitzer board pause.

They were Denis Johnson for “Train Dreams,” a book that was originally published as a novella in The Paris Review in 2002 and then was repackaged and released as a hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Karen Russell, whose debut novel “Swamplandia!” was published by Knopf when she was only 29; and David Foster Wallace for “The Pale King,” a book that was unfinished at the time of his death in 2008 and was later completed by his editor.

The fiction jury was composed of Michael Cunningham, the novelist whose book “The Hours” won a Pulitzer in 1999; Susan Larson, the former book editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans; and Maureen Corrigan, the critic in residence at Georgetown University.

Corrigan said Tuesday that she was shocked by the failure of the board to choose a winner.

“When I heard, the first word that went through my head was, ‘inexplicable,”’ she said in a telephone interview. “Then the second reaction was just anger on behalf of these three novels.”

Corrigan said she rejected the criticism that the Pulitzer board may have thought the books were too unconventional to be worthy of the Pulitzer, a common charge, especially pertaining to “The Pale King.”

“I’ve heard that theory,” she said. “If they didn’t think that these three nominations were somehow within the regulations that they have set out, then they should have made that clear at the time that we nominated them.”

In the book world, there is no prize like the Pulitzer. For an author, it carries more weight and prestige than any other prize, even the much-celebrated National Book Award. Sales typically increase, in part because Pulitzer-winning books tend to be translated into more languages and sold in more countries.

This year, some of the spoils may be divided among the finalists. Picador, which was planning to release the paperback edition of “Train Dreams” in August, has moved up the publication date to June 19, said James Meader, a spokesman for the publisher.

“Swamplandia!” has already sold more than 200,000 copies in hardcover, paperback and e-book editions and has gone back to press 12 times. Vintage, part of Knopf, will print more copies this week, adding a seal on the front cover noting that the book was a Pulitzer finalist.

The force of the response to the Pulitzer snub could be chalked up partly to the relatively rough year in the business so far. Last week the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against five major publishers, charging them with illegally colluding to set e-book prices. Three of them have settled with the government, a move that could eventually lower e-book prices across the industry.

Amazon, viewed by many authors and publishers as an all-too-powerful player in the business, has rapidly expanded its publishing ambitions in the past year.

“The fate of an entire industry seems to hang on the fate of every book, and the feeling is perfectly understandable,” said Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. “People who know how to publish books are in danger of being put out of business by people who don’t but think they do.”

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