NPR’s pop critic Ann Powers applauds Jennifer Egan’s punk music generation novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer on Monday and is being developed as an HBO series, but she trashes the Pulitzer Prize for criticism because, she writes, “a Pulitzer has never gone to a pop critic.
Seven classical critics have won since the birth of the criticism category in 1970. In those 42 years, only three pop music critics have even been finalists: Ken Tucker, Jory Farr and Leonard Pitts, Jr.
“This snub is par for the course for those of us lucky to do a job that’s long been derided as extraneous AND self-indulgent,” fumes Powers, “a substitute for the real mojo musicians possess. Marginalized within most newspapers as neither money-making (film critics bring in ads) or enriching (get thee to the symphony, philistines!), and scorned by many living the ‘rock and roll lifestyle’ as overly pointy-headed, pop critics are caught in a hallway between the high and the low.”
Powers praises Egan for “hooking you with highly engaging characters, working the groove of an engrossing narrative, layering riffs and samples from contemporary literature …. I’d nominate her for a Grammy if I could.” In fact, Powers argues that pop powers many of the great subjects of Pulitzer’s favorite criticism category: books. Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody and Nick Hornby are steeped in pop, and Hornsby and Lethem have been pop critics for Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. Egan’s Pulitzer indicates music’s power: “It’s sneaking into the history of arts and letters through fiction’s back door.”
So why can’t pop get noticed by the Pulitzers? “There is no intention to snub any area of criticism,” Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler tells THR. “In recent years the Criticism award has been pretty wide ranging. For example, the award went to an auto critic, a fashion critic and a restaurant critic, awards that upset some observers who have a narrower definition of the category.” Here’s how each field ranks in Pulitzer Prize for Criticism history (a few winners crossed categories):
Non-pop music: 7
Art: 5 (including 2011 winner Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe)
Popular music: 0
“Suffice to say the Pulitzers are open to anyone who does compelling work as a critic,” says Gissler. “You might also note that the Board in recent years has given special citations in music to Bob Dylan and Hank Williams, an indication of a broader view of excellent music.”
Another problem with taking the Pulitzers as the chief measure of American cultural criticism: they’re limited to newspaper writers, who are going the way of the town crier. “Material published in magazines is not eligible for the Pulitzer competition,” notes Gissler. “So that probably cuts into potential pop music-criticism entries.” Ex-newspaper star Tucker migrated to Entertainment Weekly, and is heard on NPR — like Powers, who was also often touted as a potential Pulitzer winner.