Pulitzer Prize board confronts its own #MeToo crisis

May 21, 2018

As was widely expected, the Pulitzer Prize Board gave its top honor, the Public Service award, to The New York Times and The New Yorker for their Harvey Weinstein exposes and the subsequent stories that have sparked the #MeToo movement.

Unexpectedly, less than a month later, the board is facing a #MeToo situation of its own. Charges of abuse and harassment by several women have been launched against novelist and short story writer Junot Diaz. He is not only a longtime member of the Pulitzer board but was to serve as chairman this coming year.

Diaz has stepped aside as chairman but remains a board member. The board will conduct an independent review of the charges, it said May 10 in a terse three-paragraph statement, adding that Diaz indicated that "he welcomed the review and would cooperate fully with it."

I called administrator Dana Canedy for elaboration and got a little but not a lot. The board's own working group on the matter, which she is heading with Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, who is staying on as interim chairman, has not yet decided who will do the independent review — whether it will be a law firm or a group constituted some other way.

Hence she said that she had no idea when the fact-finding work and the board's consideration of those results will be completed.

Canedy confirmed a couple of my guesses. The charges have nothing to do with Diaz's work as a member of the board or with conduct at Pulitzer events. Rather they spring from his teaching at M.I.T., where he is a tenured writing professor, and from travel gigs as a frequent speaker at conferences and literary events over more than a decade.

M.I.T. has announced that it will do its own investigation. Diaz's publisher, Riverhead Books, has been silent.  Meanwhile, he is getting some dis-invitations, and a few bookstores have said that they will no longer carry his works.

Canedy said that she and the board define "independent" as meaning its outside review group and then the board will do their own work, rather than waiting until M.I.T's inquiry is completed and adopting the university's findings of fact.

I could think of only one parallel in the board's recent history, and Canedy said that she and board members had the same recollection. In 2002, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin resigned from the board after accusations that portions of one of her books were plagiarized.

Kearns Goodwin claimed the duplication of passages from other works was a result of mislabeling her notes and not intentionally lifting content and wording. She said it would take her some time to clear her name by finding out how that had happened and correcting her system of gathering and coding source material.

Within three years, Goodwin had published her voluminous best seller, "Team of Rivals," about Lincoln's cabinet and resumed her sideline as a frequent television commentator.

Besides the difference in the current charges, Canedy said, a distinction is that Goodwin resigned while Diaz is keeping open the option of completing his tenure on the board if he is vindicated by the review.

The accusations against Diaz broke in an unusual fashion and spread quickly. An author and writing teacher, Zinzi Clemmons, stood up at the end of Diaz's talk at a writer's festival in Sydney, Australia, on May 4 and asked why he had mistreated her six years ago. In subsequent tweets, she said that Diaz had forcibly kissed her.

Two other women have come forward with allegations that Diaz argued with them loudly and abusively. Another reported an affair with the established writer that ended badly with his failure to deliver a promised career boost.

A further complication is that Diaz published a "personal history" piece in The New Yorker last month, saying that he had been raped by an adult when he was eight years old and has carried the trauma of the event into adulthood and his successful writing career.

Diaz's response to the charges by Clemmons and others was more artful and contrite than the rather hackneyed "sorry if I offended" denials that have become the norm. In a statement, he told the New York Times, which broke the story:

“I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue. I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries."

He has not responded to requests for further comment.

Diaz's fiction (which I have not read) has a heavy focus on family and individual dysfunction, and the New Yorker essay seems to say that he has lived that.

His 2007 novel, "The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao," won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Subsequently Diaz joined the Pulitzer Board, and in 2012 was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

Not quite two weeks after Clemmons' initial allegations, the court of public opinion has jumped hard on the case. Various essays, most of them by women, have asked whether abusive authors belong on the reading syllabus for courses on writing and whether Diaz exemplifies the entitled "male creative genius" who expects to be forgiven for deplorable behavior because of his talent and fame.

Midweek, an open letter (explained Wednesday in a New York Times op-ed) signed by 26 Latina writers deplored social media and newspaper accounts which, they said, had created "what amounts to a full-blown media-harassment campaign," against the writer.

Having recently reported on the composition of the Pulitzer Board, its judging process and tradition of not revealing internal discussions, I see three particular difficulties ahead.

The board clearly aims for diversity in its composition. Diaz is one of two Hispanic members and the only prose fiction writer on the 17-member board. But since this was to be his last of a nine-year term, future appointments will probably be able to cover those bases.

Also, the board is ever-so deliberative as it awards the prizes. Members' own reading and anointing winners comes after a huge effort by preliminary juries to winnow down the entries to three finalists for each category.

But a prolonged, careful, independent review runs the risk of being eclipsed by the continued unfolding of what surely has become a big story in the literary world. At a minimum, the board will need to balance due process and urgency.

Finally, I asked Canedy whether the current journalistic focus on transparency (an element of The Washington Post's prize-winning reporting on Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore), spills over into this sensitive inquiry.

Absolutely, she said. "We want transparency about the fact that we are doing this and why." 

But whether that will play out in full publication of the findings and an explanation of the board's reasoning as well as its ultimate action remains to be seen.

Disclosure: Poynter president Neil Brown has been a member of the Pulitzer board since 2015.