Somewhere, the ghost of David Foster Wallace is … actually, I have no idea what the hell he’s doing. But there’s little doubt in my mind he’s the reason the Pulitzer committee didn’t bestow a fiction award this year. Denis Johnson has a right to be miffed, too (although I’ve always liked his poetry more). They also didn’t give an editorial award for the same reason – they couldn’t agree. Sweet irony, there.
I gave up on my newspaper Pulitzer dreams when I became a designer/editor lo these 17 years ago, about halfway into my stint as Knight Ridder-Tribune’s national Generation X columnist. They just don’t have a Pulitzer design category (that’s what SND is for). Honestly, those dreams were never that strong, anyway. I’ve always seemed to run with the outsiders as a writer, so I don’t expect a ton of mainstream accolades for anything I do. Want, sure. Expect, not so much. The best compliment I ever got for my column (aside from this one), was that the reader was shocked, because she hadn’t read anything like that in a newspaper before.
But ONE TIME, I did have a brush with a Pulitzer. It wasn’t mine, but I sure am proud to have played a part.
In 2004, I had one of those life-changing conversations with a book-dealer friend, John LeBow. He had been publishing small fine-press editions by some of my favorite poets and writers on the side. I bought a copy of the deluxe edition of “Later Trane,” an essay about John Coltrane by Amiri Baraka, that John had just done. He called to ask me what I thought, and the old split-screen opened up in my brain. One side of the screen had me telling him it was just great, pitch-perfect. The other side had me telling him the truth. Which I did.
My problem was with the type. It was printed in Courier, which just screams “font blowout” to a designer. I told John this, and he told me Baraka wanted the book to look like it had come off of a typewriter, like one of his manuscripts in a bound form, and Courier was the typewriter font he had on his computer.
He asked, “Do you know anything about this?”
“You know, actually, I do,” I said. “Did I ever tell you that this is what I do for a living? I mean, in a newspaper way.”
“Well, do you want to do the next one?”
Just like that, I became a book designer. And the book he handed me was “The Book of Monk,” by Amiri Baraka. It had a short story about meeting Monk’s ghost on the streets of Newark, a suite of poems (!), his first ones to see print in quite a while, as he had been focusing on artwork for years, and an essay. Just incredible work, and it was in my custody.
I set the type in a corroded Remington-style font, made some very light editing suggestions, and ordered the poems. I had just started reading the I Ching, and decided to let some chance into the equation. I put down the poems in the order that they landed in my e-mail, and I thought it worked powerfully.
It was printed in several editions, none above 100. Fairly below the radar.
Enter Henry Louis Gates Jr. He was on the committee to award posthumous Pulitzers, and ordered one of each of the editions of “Book of Monk” to use as evidence to sway the committee to get Thelonious Monk one. It worked. He got one in 2006.
As much as it made the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes to hear Baraka thought “Monk” was the best-looking of his books in his entire career, to know it played a part in getting Monk’s Pulitzer just about made it burst.
Beginner’s luck …