Thursday, August 9, 2012

And the Pulitzer for Adapted Novel Goes To...

Is it just me [all irritated because the Pulitzer board didn't do their job this year] or shouldn't the fiction award go to a completely original work?  Maybe that's just my interpretation of "For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life." (emphasis mine)

ANYhow, my book club just finished reading a Pulitzer (A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley - 1992) and my reading-enjoyment kept being compromised by the thought that the storyline wasn't completely original.  It's based (heavily) on Shakespeare's King Lear, (who, in the event you have forgotten, is not American,) both in characters and plot.  Not being all too familiar with King Lear, much of the book (section divisions, character development, plot points, etc.) felt jumpy and forced to me.  As a new perspective on a classic, I'm sure there is much to appreciate, but as a piece of "distinguished fiction by an American author" there was much to be desired.

Despite the oddities present due to the close parallel, the premise was interesting, the writing was easy to digest, and it kept me turning pages.  I had hope at the beginning, when the writing was crisp and unique, that Jane Smiley was a new favorite author.  But I ended up noting only the one passage:
We might as well have had a catechism:
What is a farmer?
A farmer is a man who feeds the world.
What is a farmer's first duty?
To grow more food.
What is a farmer's second duty?
To buy more land.
What are the signs of a good farm?
Clean field, neatly painted buildings, breakfast at six, no debts, no standing water.
How will you know a good farmer when you meet him?
He will not ask you for any favors.
That fun bit aside, this was the least poetic Pulitzer I've ever read.  It was, admittedly, a brilliant look at American farming in the late 1970s, but I was ultimately disappointed.  I would have liked it much more if I wasn't hoping for the quality I've found in other Pulitzer Prize winners.  You've been warned!

Good idea: reading A Thousand Acres as a comparison to King Lear.
Bad idea: reading A Thousand Acres as a comparison to other Pulitzers.


  1. Oddly enough, a not-original plot is not on my lists of pet peeves for writing, as long as the plot is transcribed in some different and meaningful way. After all, Shakespeare didn't invent King Lear, either. His is just the best known version.

    That being said, I didn't love this book. I didn't even like it enough to finish. I've had the same problem with every Jane Smiley book that I've picked up. Same thing with Jane Hamilton, too, come to think of it.

    But I am *totally* with you on the frustration over the Pulitzer committee's decision not to award the prize to one of the three books submitted. Did you read Michael Cunningham's multi-part essay that ran 2-3 weeks ago about HIS own frustration, after being part of the selection process? Quite interesting.

  2. I'm not opposed to it in general, (think it could be quite interesting actually,) but if it's being considered for an award I think it really has to prove its worth. This one just didn't. It didn't really stand on its own.

    I didn't read Cunnigham's essay, but it sounds interesting. Thanks for bringing it up - I'm going to look it up.

    1. Really enjoyed reading that! Many of the things he said rang true to my experience in the Indie Lit Awards. Whenever I read a prize winner I always have a thought lingering in my mind about the runners-up...sometimes it's enough for me to give a book the benefit of the doubt (sometimes it isn't!)


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