It was recently reported in our nation’s entertainment sections that Richard Linklater’ film Boyhood has already won 75 awards, and been nominated for many more.
Rational people read that and think Boyhood is a movie they should go see the next time they can hire the inexpensive babysitter (Boyhood is a long movie). The next thing they wonder is whether we really need to be giving so many damn awards to things. A solid consensus around Boyhood was probably reached somewhere around 10 awards. After 75 that lily is thoroughly crushed from gilt.
This truth occurs as we announce the books and judges for the 11th annual Morning News Tournament of Books (you can find our long, long list of potential contenders here), and serves as a helpful reminder that this particular anointing of a single work of fiction published in 2014 is entirely unnecessary. It’s not exactly equivalent to a movie award, of course—the vast number of novels published each year means there’s plenty of yet-to-be-distributed praise to go around—but we always like to kick things off by reminding everyone, ourselves included, that we do this because it’s fun. It’s a goof.
In no way do we claim that the following 16 books constitute the definitive list of the best fiction released last year. Or that the title that wins the Rooster is the supreme domestic fowl of them all. But we do hope the list is representative of the outstanding literature we encountered in the last 12 months (admittedly, mostly in English, mostly in novel form, and mostly in America).
Everyone will disagree with some part of it, including the individuals who created it. The ToB shortlist exists specifically for you to enjoy, explore, berate or dismiss. Likewise, never have we claimed that this elimination process is fair. It is capricious and silly. But the conversation that results is one that we value, and we hope that some of you will value it, too.
But before we get into it, two quick shout-outs: First, to this year’s tournament sponsor, Chicago’s very own Field Notes. They’re longtime supporters of the ToB, and we greatly appreciate their support. We also love their notebooks and use them every day to keep track of all sorts of things. As they say, “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” Keep an eye on this space for a ToB 2015 exclusive product coming soon.
Also, our great thanks to one of the world’s great bookstores, Powell’s in Portland, Ore., who’s been our book sponsor for many years. We also want to extend a warm welcome to Vector Media Group, this year’s sponsor of the ToB Commentary Booth. Since 2011 the development team at Vector has been our publishing partner, keeping the ToB—and TMN—running smooth and fast, year-round.
There are a few twists in this year’s list. For the first time, we suspended one of the longstanding, unwritten rules of the ToB. Since the beginning, we’ve held that novels authored by TMN staff—editors and contributing writers—should be ineligible for the shortlist. After a great deal of angst, deliberation, and sustained argument, however, we decided to include Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See.
Tony has been a contributing writer for TMN since 2005, and his 2008 travel book, Four Seasons in Rome, began as a column here. When the tournament starts we will talk in more detail about how that decision was made, but the short version is this: All the Light We Cannot See is arguably the literary story of 2014. (As well, it was an extreme favorite in a poll of TMN readers.) Therefore, the shortlist would seem incomplete without it, and if its presence has the appearance of impropriety than we’ll just have to deal with it, the same way that Chris Christie is going to have deal with the appearance of Jerry Jones sidehug gifs.
Also, only 15 of these novels were chosen by the embarrassingly small, parochial, mostly homogeneous Tournament of Books staff. For the 16th book, we consulted a small, independent bookstore in the middle of the country—The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn, Ill.—and asked its staff to give us the single 2014 title that they pushed into customers’ hands most often and most passionately for inclusion on our list. To be frank, the novel they came to us with, All The Birds Singing by Evie Wyld, was not even on our radar. We’re excited to see how it will do with the judges.
Another twist: Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner will return to their regular spots in the commentator booth, but we’ll also be adding some fresh perspectives to the perch. More on that later.
The Shortlist for The Morning News 2015 Tournament of Books
Click on any of the book titles below for a 30 percent discount on this year’s competitors from Powell’s.
- Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
- A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
- An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
- Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer
- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
- Redeployment by Phil Klay
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
- The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
- Adam by Ariel Schrag
- The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
- Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
- All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
We’ve seeded these novels in an NCAA tournament-style bracket—download it here [pdf]. Each day in March, a single judge, presumably (although if history serves, not necessarily) having read both books, will choose one of them to advance, and he or she will provide a detailed accounting of the reasons why he or she has decided thusly. Also, we’ll ask our judges to reveal any and all connections they have with the authors and titles involved.
The tournament will continue until two works remain, at which time a pair of novels that have been previously eliminated will rise from the dead in our Zombie Round, where they will attempt to defeat our presumptive finalists. (At the end of this post you’ll find your chance to vote for which titles should rise from the grave.) The winners of those contests will advance to the final match, where a verdict will be delivered by a vote from all of the judges listed below.
And, as is our tradition, the winning author will be threatened with the presentation of a live rooster. Local ordinances concerning livestock maintenance may apply.
Judges for The Morning News 2015 Tournament of Books
Elliot Ackerman, author of the novel Green on Blue, served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. His essays and fiction have appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Ecotone, among others. A former White House Fellow, he is the recipient of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. He currently lives in Istanbul with his wife and two children, and writes on the Syrian Civil War.
Christina Bevilacqua is the Director of Programs and Public Engagement at the Providence Athenaeum, a 19th-century library, where she presides over a weekly salon on such topics as history, visual art, theater, politics, fashion, collecting, literature, music, architecture, science, education, and urban policy. She also runs a monthly Proust reading group.
Nicole Cliffe is a co-founder of The Toast, a popular site for women and very strange men, and has contributed to The Hairpin, The Awl, McSweeney’s, and The Morning News. She lives in Utah with her husband and children while cultivating an air of mystery.
Laura Cogan is the editor of ZYZZYVA Literary Magazine. The San Francisco-based journal celebrates its 30th year in print in 2015.
Elisabeth Donnelly is Flavorwire’s nonfiction editor. Her journalism, essays, and criticism have been published in the New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Awl, and The Paris Review Daily, among others. Along with Stu Sherman, she is the author, under the pseudonym Alex Flynn, of The Misshapes.
Manuel Gonzales is the author of the collection The Miniature Wife and Other Stories and the forthcoming novel, The Regional Office Is Under Attack! He teaches creative writing at the University of Kentucky.
Matthea Harvey is the author of five books of poetry—most recently If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? and Of Lamb, an illustrated erasure with Amy Jean Porter—and two books for children, Cecil the Pet Glacier and The Little General and the Giant Snowflake. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College.
Tayari Jones is the author of three novels, most recently Silver Sparrow. She serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers University–Newark.
Alice Sola Kim is a writer and office manager. Her fiction has recently been published or is forthcoming in Tin House, Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, McSweeney’s Literary Quarterly, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Jessica Lamb-Shapiro is the author of Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, Time, McSweeney’s, and The Believer, and has received fellowships from The New York Foundation for the Arts and The MacDowell Colony.
Victor LaValle is the author of four books, most recently The Devil in Silver. He lives in New York City with his family and teaches in Columbia University’s creative writing program.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a columnist for Esquire magazine.
Composer Stephin Merritt records under the band names the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes. Merritt has made 10 Magnetic Fields albums, including his popular 1999 album 69 Love Songs. Currently he is composing for theater, television, film, and dance, as well as album projects.
ToB 2015 Reader Judge Amanda McClendon lives in Houston, Texas, where she works full-time for a library and part-time for a tiny Baptist church. You can read her random missives on religion, coffee, and Doctor Who on Twitter at @akmcclen.
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Commencement, Maine, and The Engagements. Maine was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. It will be translated into 17 languages and is soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon.
Victor “Kool A.D.” Vazquez is a post-American Neo-Mestizo post-Pop artist from the Bay Area working primarily with language, light, sound, people, and the internet. His debut novel O.K. is forthcoming from Sorry House.
Meg Wolitzer’s novels include The Interestings, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, and The Wife. Her YA novel, Belzhar, was published in the fall. Wolitzer’s short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize, and she is a frequent book critic for NPR’s All Things Considered.
There you have it: our books and judges for the 2015 Tournament of Books. Finally, here’s your chance to vote for your favorite contender in the Zombie Poll. After all, your vote may decide which novel returns from the beyond for a chance to win it all.
(One vote per person. Voting ends at midnight Eastern Time on Monday, Jan. 12.)
That’s it! Thanks, and we’ll see you back in March for the tournament. Happy reading.