Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Pulitzer Syndrome

In a recent post, I made the case for the length of Moby Dick. It’s the first time I’ve done so, because I usually complain when a book runs over 300 pages. I am not endorsing length as a concept. At best, it usually bogs down and detracts from the book. At worst, it comes off self-indulgent or show-offy.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Chabon, and I tell everyone so. I love his new book, Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and still rave to people about it weeks after finishing it. But it is a bit tinged by this dynamic.

I have taken to calling this the Pulitzer Syndrome, and I’m curious to know if others have noticed it. It goes like this:

Author writes ambitious book. Author wins Pulitzer (or other popular acclaim). Author takes this as a mandate, and (perhaps semi-consciously) tries to make each successive book more ambitious. Editor quails at the idea of suggesting to a Pulitzer-winning author that perhaps 450 or 500 pages is more than is necessary to tell a story. Book is published. Reviewers swoon, partly because author is truly talented, partly based on previous success. Despite length, book does well enough. Add dollars; repeat.

I don’t know if this is the way it works, but the evidence is sure there. I’ve seen it happen with Barbara Kingsolver, who went from her delightful light trilogy, which ended with Pigs in Heaven, to gratingly pretentious essays and the ponderous Poisonwood Bible.

I’ve even seen it happen with George Lucas. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace (the fourth movie in the series, the one that began the new trilogy) was bloated, wooden and plotless. Can you imagine one of Lucas’ assistants waiting for a private moment with the emperor, so s/he could say, “Uh, George, about that script…” Yeah. Right.

But it’s a pity they don’t.

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