[4 May 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
In April, Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, finally won a Pulitzer Prize.
Bradbury’s honor is a “special citation for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy,” according to pulitzer.org.
“Of course, I’m pleased,” Bradbury, 86, told me from his home in Los Angeles. “I’ve heard about it all my life. I realize it’s a thing of great value. They’re rewarding me not for one book but a lifetime of work, and that is simply incredible.”
Yes, it is incredible and deserving. Bradbury has spent six decades predicting (sometimes darkly) our future and revealing (again, sometimes darkly) our fears and fantasies.
His first book, a collection called Dark Carnival, saw print in a limited edition in 1947. It is more horror than science fiction or fantasy. Bradbury has subsequently softened his style, but the stories are brilliant—including one, “The Small Assassin,” that shows not even children are always innocent.
The Martian Chronicles, which came out in 1950, is a hybrid book, a group of short yarns that are connected and can be read as a novel. Despite frequently being labeled science fiction, it is fantasy. There’s not much real science in its pages. But the book conveys the human yearning for space flight, which began just seven years after the book’s publication with Sputnik.
As Bradbury himself has pointed out numerous times, Fahrenheit 451 is his only genuine science-fiction novel. Published in 1953, it not only forecast the specter of censorship but also correctly anticipated the growing domination of electronic media in our lives. While Bradbury’s “fireman,” Guy Montag, burns books, his wife watches doltish shows on a TV with giant multiple screens or drowns her psyche in music on a device that prefigured both Walkmans and iPods.
All these worlds. All these amazing works. Now this special citation. But a point must be made here: Not one of Bradbury’s books ever received a Pulitzer Prize.
The Pulitzers are three years older than Bradbury himself. Since the first prizes in 1917, the honors have, for the most part, ignored the genres Bradbury has pursued and also have spurned the mystery field.
When I asked Bradbury about that, he was gracious: “It’s up to them to decide that. I don’t believe in telling people how to give an award.”
I admire Bradbury’s courtesy. But I also have to say it’s time the Pulitzer board started being more open-minded.
To be fair, there is a lot of bad science fiction, fantasy and mystery fiction out there. Too much of it remains formulaic. For every genius like Bradbury, there are a hundred authors doing mediocre work. But there are some great ones, too—Andy Duncan, Joe R. Lansdale, Nancy Kress and Pamela Sargent, to name a few.
Nevertheless, the Pulitzer fiction winners remain dominated by realism. Victors in the last few years have included Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Very worthy, to be sure, but the literary realm is bigger than that.
Actually, the Pulitzer ice is cracking. Michael Chabon won in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a sprawling novel that featured elements as various and imaginative as comic books and magic. This year’s winner, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, concerns a man and his son in a post-apocalyptic world.
Strictly speaking, both these books fall into the area of what people now like to call “speculative fiction,” what with the negative connotations that have become attached to “science fiction” and “fantasy.”
But both books also were published by mainstream presses (Random House for Clay and Random House imprint Alfred A. Knopf for The Road) and were marketed as mainstream novels. If books had feet, one could almost imagine these tiptoeing into the Pulitzer winners’ circle.
The Pulitzer situation involving literature is reflected in the prizes’ pattern in the area of music. Tradition has been paramount.
As Nekesa Mumbi Moody wrote for The Associated Press a few days before this year’s awards were announced, “classical has reigned, despite a rich musical landscape featuring the likes of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, James Brown, John Coltrane, the Motown era and the birth of new genres from rock to rap.”
Perhaps cognizant of that, the Pulitzer judges this year made a gesture similar to the one that brought Bradbury his honor. The other special citation Pulitzer for 2007 went to the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Happily, Coltrane’s fellow jazzman Ornette Coleman did win the music Pulitzer for Sound Grammar—and did it while he was alive. Sure is nice to be around to enjoy it.
Sorry—I can’t help being a bit snippy. Again from the Pulitzer Web site: “In letters, the board has grown less conservative over the years in matters of taste.” I acknowledge that’s true and leave it for you to evaluate the examples the Pulitzer folks cite in their defense.
But I insist they still have work to do. No label, no genre, no terminology, no category should deny a worthy work, book or piece of music the opportunity for recognition.
So, to close: Congratulations, Mr. Bradbury. And may the future—that subject that has preoccupied you and fascinated us, thanks in large part to your writings—bring greater appreciation to your peers.