The Pulitzer Board Stands in Judgment

By — on / International Negotiation

On April 16, the Pulitzer Prize board announced its annual writing prizes, with two notable omissions: the board chose not to award Pulitzers in the categories of fiction and editorial writing. The reaction from the publishing industry to the Pulitzer’s fiction snub, in particular, was swift and hostile. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” writes Ann Patchett, a fiction writer and bookstore owner, in a New York Times editorial.

The Pulitzer Board’s decision comes at a difficult time for the publishing industry, which has faced steadily declining book sales in recent years. And just five days before the Pulitzer announcement, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against five of the biggest U.S. publishers for colluding to set e-book prices. Now the industry must do without the annual boost the Pulitzer gives to the winning author and publisher – and cope with the implication that it was a miserable year for literary fiction.

The winner of the fiction prize is usually selected in a two-step process, Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzers for Columbia University, told the New York Times. A three-member fiction jury reviews hundreds of books and chooses three finalists, which are then sent to the Pulitzer board. Board members read the books and meet for two days to select a winner. A majority vote is required; this year, the judges could not reach one. Book critic Maureen Corrigan, a member of the fiction jury, told the Times that she was angered by the board’s decision, which she called “inexplicable.”

What explains the Pulitzer board’s negotiated decision, and could the board have tempered the backlash it faced from holding back the fiction prize? Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Susskind, the Program on Negotiation’s expert in group decision-making, provided us with the following analysis of the board’s decision:

It is hard to understand how and why the Pulitzer board was unable to reach agreement. Reportedly, none of the three nominated books was able to muster a majority. Surely, though, the board had the option of first eliminating one of the books through a simple voting mechanism and then requiring its members to vote for one of the two remaining books. They could have repeated that process until there was a winner.

So, obviously, it wasn’t that they couldn’t think of an effective voting procedure. Something else must have been afoot. In all likelihood, one or more members of the Pulitzer board – for the first time in almost 35 years – convinced the rest of the board that none of the three boards merited selection.

While this has angered the fiction nominating committee, which worked hard to come up with three nominations, it is certainly a decision that the board had a right to make. In the future, though, it would probably be wise for the full board to clarify (1) that it retains the right to reject all of its nominating committee’s recommendations; and (2) that it has, in the past, rejected all of the committee’s recommendations when certain minimum standards have not been met – and then it should say what those standards are.

It might also make sense for the full board, if it is deadlocked, to meet face-to-face with its nominating committee (or online if necessary) to hear more about the judges’ reasons for nominating the books they selected. This might not break the deadlock, but it would enhance the legitimacy of the final decision in the world at large.

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