Why no Pulitzer Prize for feature writing? Here are four theories

Once again the Pulitzer Prize board has decided to withhold a prize – this time in the category of feature writing. It is in our nature as journalists to wonder why. When this news hit the streets, I tracked down the three stories selected as finalists and tried to read into them any deficiency that might disqualify them as prize-worthy. This is not the way I like to read.

What follows is not a reported piece but an exercise in mind-reading. I have been a Pulitzer juror on four occasions — twice as chair of jury for general nonfiction books, once in commentary, and once in feature writing. The year I sat on the feature writing jury, the board chose not to select any of our three finalists, but picked a winner from another category, something that they could have done this year, but chose not to. I understand the practical limitations and politics of the Pulitzer process and offer these remarks in hopes of consoling those who devote themselves to feature writing.

Let me begin by congratulating the three finalists, their editors, and their news organizations. It is gratifying in an era of shrinking news resources to see such exceptional work:

• Scott Farwell, Dallas Morning News, for a series of stories on a horrific case of child abuse and its continuing consequences.

• Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times, for a series of stories on a deranged former police officer who went on a vengeful nine-day killing spree.

• Mark Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for a series of stories on medical students and their connection to bodies donated for medical research.

If I were the editor of a metropolitan newspaper, I would be honored to have any of these three writers on my staff. Had any one of them captured a Pulitzer Prize, I, for one, would not have raised an eyebrow. Absent any special knowledge of how these pieces were reported or written, I saw nothing in them that would question their quality, authenticity or veracity. There is nothing to see here, folks, except hard-working journalists engaged in enterprise reporting. I hope all three are gratified to know that it is much harder to become a finalist than win a prize.

Something unfortunate and unintended happens any time the Pulitzer Board decides not to give a prize in a particular category.  A finalist in any other category has his or her work honored unconditionally. The lack of a winner in a category casts a pall on all the finalists, calling attention to their imagined deficiencies rather than their capacities.

It is within this context of respect for the three finalists that I am going to say some things about them collectively that will be misinterpreted as negative criticism. My purpose in doing so is not to disparage them in any way, but to imagine the complex set of forces at work that might result in the withholding of the ultimate prize.

Theory One: Genre confusion. These three works are not, strictly speaking, feature stories. Each is multi-part series with all the peculiar strengths and weaknesses that attach. Although series have won this award in the past, so have single stories or a portfolio of features on a variety of topics. While a series offers depth of reporting and opportunities for narrative writing, it can lack the focused power of a single story. Think of  famous magazine pieces such as “The Falling Man” by Tom Junod or “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese.

Theory Two: Reading fatigue. These works – at least the versions I read online – are long, long, long, so long that I had to devote most of yesterday to reading them closely enough to offer these judgments. I hope I am not biased by having written a book called “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.” The value on length should always be proportionality, a length that justifies the topic and commands the reader’s attention. I can attest that when you are judging a writing contest, long work feels even longer. In all three works, the writing at the top and at the end was stronger than the writing in the middle, a classic problem that might complicate the judging.

Theory Three: The morbid truth. These are hard stories to read individually because of their topics. Collectively, they can depress the reader, even an earnest Pulitzer board member. Great journalism is about the morbid truth, there can be no denying that fact. But it is hard to read thousands of words about the horrible torture of a child, or innocents gunned down by a madman. The story of the medical students might have served as an antidote to the darkness, except so much of it is about cutting up corpses.

Theory Four: The hung jury. With 17 board members, it requires nine votes to select a winner (not as tough as Cooperstown, folks). At times, a single entry stands high above the rest. That was not the case here. How would I have voted? I could have voted for Scott Farwell for giving us a character for whom there is a glimmer of hope for a decent life against the backdrop of the worst kind of cruelty. I could have voted for Christopher Goffard for a serial narrative that has riveting elements of a true crime adventure. I could have voted for Mark Johnson for taking us into a world we knew existed, but never hoped to see up close. If pressed, I would have given the nod to Goffard.

The Pulitzer board had the opportunity to find a winner in the feature writing category. They see everything. They might have asked the jury to put forward one or two additional finalists. They could have selected finalists from a related category – such as explanatory journalism – and moved it. But folks involved in this process, however dedicated to the work, can suffer from judging fatigue and, whatever the allure of the Upper West Side, want to get back home.

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  • David Lee Preston

    On
    the decision not to award a feature-writing Pulitzer this year: We
    respect the process, the decision, and the competition. Recognition is
    gratifying, and in the end the work itself endures. At the Philadelphia Daily News, we’re proud of Jason Nark,
    who won 1st place in feature writing from the Pennsylvania Associated
    Press Managing Editors for this extraordinary piece, nominated by the
    newspaper for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing: http://bit.ly/RmqPPm

  • billmarvel

    Roy,
    I seem to recall that the last time a Pulitzer was refused to features, the committee complained of the burden of endless dying baby stories and sagas of incurable diseases or adversity overcome by pluck. So your Theories Two and Three may be a fit.

    I suspect something else animated this year’s snub. There is – let’s all admit it — a deadening sameness to newspaper (and to lesser extent, magazine) feature writing that must fill the heart of any judge of any writing competition with dread. Call it feature fatigue.

    Honestly, when is the last time you read a feature and felt the hair go up on the back of your neck? Or realized you were in a world you never dreamed of? Or were just swept away?

    Feature-writing has had a wonderful opportunity laid before it. Newspapers seem to want good features these days. They imagine that good features build good readers. They send us off to conferences and bring in coaches to exhort us. All this should have lead us into a new Golden Age.

    It has not. It has produced a plethora of pretty good features, competent well-meaning work that still wins local prizes. But little really great writing. In aiming for the best,we’ve managed to hit the good.

    I just finished reading three novels. In order to stick with them, I put my daily paper aside. Why? Why should fiction writers win my attention away from dying babies and incurable diseases? Is it because I’m callous? Come to think of it, those novels dealt with, among other things, dying babies, incurable diseases and so much else. So it can’t be that. What, then?

    Perhaps it’s in those “other things,” the sense of a lived life, of revelation.

    This comment is going to get me into a lot of trouble with friends who write, edit and teach features. I can only say, sorry, nothing personal. But we’re asking for not just readers’ time, but the deep psychic commitment that real reading involves. Good intentions are not enough.