The word is "wodge" — and it explains everything.
Wodge is a wonderful word. A playful word. Fun to say, fun to write, fun to see on the page. Had it not already existed, Dr. Seuss surely would have invented it. I first heard it a few years ago, when a friend who had grown up in Sussex, England, uttered it; I was instantly captivated, so much so that I didn't want to acknowledge that I was unsure of its definition. Later, I secretly looked it up. According to Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries, it is British slang for "bulky mess or chunk," analogous to "lump" or "wad." The Great Wodge is what we have these days, when it comes to creative works. We're drowning in the stuff. Publishers Weekly reports that output from traditional publishers rose 6 percent in 2011, for a total of 347,178 books, and while the numbers flattened out in 2012, self-published books and e-books quickly took up the slack; their numbers have easily tripled since 2006. Oh, and you can't forget all the blog posts, newspaper and magazine articles, Tweets, podcasts, Facebook updates, email messages and scattered rants and ramblings — all competing for readers.
Given the stupendous and ever-swelling mess of verbiage, given the ongoing tsunami of syllables and deathless deluge of pages — in short, given the aforementioned Great Wodge — how can a humble reader ever possibly hope to find a few good things to read?
That's where literary prizes come in. Prizes may be important and career-enhancing for the authors who receive them, but the actual value of such accolades, I believe, accrues not to individuals, but to the culture at large. Because prizes help us to cull, to comb through, to choose, to differentiate, to separate, to select. Prizes are a way — not the only way, of course, but one way, and perhaps the easiest — to confront the Great Wodge, to stand before it with your fists on your hips and stare it down, to tame it and subdue it. To be exhilarated — rather than intimidated — by it.
Ultimately, those who decide upon which written works to bestow prizes offer the most precious gift that can ever be given: Sage advice about how best to spend one's time. The value of that advice derives from the fact that time is the one resource that is irrefutably finite and absolutely nonrenewable. You can make more money; you can't make more time.
Such advice may be rejected. It may be ignored. It may be argued with. It is, after all, utterly and forever subjective, as are all human judgments. But in general, the evaluations of those who agree to serve on juries for literary prizes are offered with an earnestness and with a purity of spirit. The unspoken but omnipresent message is: With what time you have left on this earth — and who knows just how long that will be for any of us? — you will be enriched by these words, the words that we have, by dint of sweat and passionate argument with our fellow jurors, pulled out of the Great Wodge and that we now dangle before your eyes, imploring you to take a look.
I've been a juror for writing contests many times, including the grandest of them all, the Pulitzer Prizes, and I've won and lost a few writing prizes myself over the years. Thus I know how maddeningly subjective and infuriatingly unfair such processes can sometimes seem to be. I know how favoritism and short-sightedness and envy and vanity can corrupt any sort of literary competition; as noted earlier, but cannot be repeated often enough, complete objectivity in any human endeavor is impossible.
Still, having sat among jurors as we agonized over the choice of one writer's work over another, as we fought and wrangled with each other over what the term "good writing" really means, I can say this: In the end, literary prizes are a positive thing. Most judges are honorable. And even the controversies that sometimes flare up in the wake of a literary contest are a blessing; they prove that somebody cares, that somebody's paying attention. The day a prize announcement is met with a comfy silence and a chorus of happy nods is the day a prize officially ceases to matter.
On Monday the Pulitzer Prizes will be announced at Columbia University. Journalists will be waiting nervously in newsrooms all over the country, waiting to hear which of their colleagues produced work that was found worthy of this signal honor. In the arts, awards will be given to, among other categories, books that represent the year's outstanding novel; work of general nonfiction; and biography or autobiography.
The Pulitzer Prize administrator asks jurors in each category to sift through a great many entries and present three recommendations to the Pulitzer Prize Board. The rules are made clear to the jurors: Board members make the final determination. Last year, a fuss erupted when the board declined to give the fiction prize to any of the nominees. This was not unprecedented; the board has demurred on previous occasions as well. Yet the jurors went public with their anger and umbrage: Was their work for naught? In years past, the judges of England's Man Booker Prize have been the recipients of a similar sort of hostility when their decisions were questioned; for that award, the issue often comes down to a battle between popular fiction and so-called "literary" fiction.
Judges do their best, but mistakes are made. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf never won the Nobel Prize in literature — but John Galsworthy and Sinclair Lewis did. It's an outrage that neither E.L. Doctorow nor Joyce Carol Oates have won Pulitzers for their work; both have been finalists but never took home the top prize. And the Pulitzer has sometimes been given to the right author for the wrong work: William Faulkner won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his least distinguished novels, "A Fable" in 1955 and "The Reivers" in 1963.
Still, with all of their messiness, with all of the grumpiness they provoke and the disgruntlement they instigate, literary awards are our best defense against the pernicious effects of the Great Wodge. With the pile of written material (and "pile" is strictly metaphorical, given the web's ubiquitous and ever-tightening grip on our world) that rises every day, day after day, we can hardly rely solely on our own literary discoveries. That would be like having to pick your spouse from only the people in your third-grade classroom; the sample size is just too small. You need to expand the search.
Awards emanate from the flawed judgments of human beings, and because of that, aren't always fair or correct or prescient. Heck, sometimes they're not even comprehensible. But having been in some of the rooms where such decisions were made, I know that the majority of people who volunteer their time and expertise to judge literary contests do their very best to be even-handed and thorough, to put aside pettiness and score-settling and snobbery, and select works that truly move and enlighten them.
And that's important, because the Great Wodge looms as an ever-present peril. I recently visited Annie Dillard's website. She's a writer I have long admired for the freshness and vigor of her prose. But the Great Wodge, I fear, has gotten to her; her website is a stiff-arm aimed at all the stuff that comes flooding her way. "I'm merely overwhelmed," she writes in her weary lament. "I can no longer read, let alone comment on, the many books and manuscripts people send me. ... It's a matter of time, not heart." One can sympathize, but still: What if she misses something wonderful?
Julia Keller, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, has been a Pulitzer Jjuror four times. Her novel "A Killing in the Hills," (Minotaur), which is due out inwill be published in paperback June 11, is a nominee for the Barry Award for Best First Novel.