We started the Tournament of Books in 2005. For the last 16 years, tens of thousands of readers have gathered here each March to passionately discuss a field of 16 works from that year’s most interesting fiction—a field whittled down by a panel of expert judges over four weeks until a single book is left standing to take home our big, silly, enormously significant prize, the Rooster.
And in 16 years, not a single author of the winning title has accepted our offer of a live rooster. (For more Rooster lore, read “A Brief History of the Tournament of Books” by Angela Chen.)
From David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout to Sally Rooney’s Normal People, we’ve celebrated some of the most exciting novels from the last two decades. And now, finally, 16 Tournaments later, we have enough winners to field a Tournament entirely consisting of Rooster winners.
We call it the Super Rooster. And it’s all starting on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.
Let us begin by saying how excited we are to announce that Bookshop is joining us to make it all happen. You know Bookshop, right? The online bookstore that’s on a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores? It’s exactly the kind of spirit we love to promote with the ToB, so, please welcome Bookshop to the Rooster family! And grab your reading materials by heading over to our Bookshop Super Rooster list right now and picking up our contestants.
We’re also very proud to say that our longstanding Rooster booster Field Notes is also in the mix with their fabulous notebooks and other wares. Field Notes have been a ToB supporter almost since the get-go, and we’re thrilled they’re back once more.
And before we go any further, our enormous gratitude goes to TMN’s Sustaining Members, who enable us to produce a calendar of Rooster events all year long, from our regular ToB in March to our recently completed Camp ToB 2020, where Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn won, and will be automatically entered in the 2021 Tournament of Books. (Yes, there will be a regular Tournament in March 2021, of course. Sponsored by gallons of espresso.)
Now, on to brass tacks:
- Below you’ll find a full list of the novels in play—all our Rooster winners from 2005 to 2020. You’ll also see that alongside each novel we’ve included a “potential Zombie.” That’s because the Super Rooster, like previous Tournaments, will include a Zombie Round, where a novel previously knocked out of play has a chance to come back for a shot at the Rooster. But for the Super Rooster it will be a little different: Our Zombies are those books that lost in their original championship matches to the Rooster winners that are now in play.
- You’ll also recognize our judging panel—we’re going alumni-only for the Super Rooster, family style, as it were.
- This year you can also look forward to longtime commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner analyzing everything from the booth. But we’re also going to pick up something we did for the 2020 Tournament of Books, where members of our Commentariat are invited to join us for the commentary on select days during the Super Rooster. If you’d like to participate, please complete the form way down below by midnight (ET) on Friday, Sept. 4.
- Finally: You want brackets, we’ve got brackets, and you can download them here:
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The Shortlist for The Super Rooster
Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers’ summaries and edited for length. We may get a cut from purchases made through the book links.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
In 1850, American notary Adam Ewing is voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, he is befriended by a physician who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. Abruptly, we jump to Belgium in 1931, where composer Robert Frobisher contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. From there we head to the West Coast in the 1970s, when reporter Luisa Rey stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder. And onward, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.
The Accidental by Ali Smith
A mysterious stranger suddenly appears during a family’s summer holiday, transforming four variously unhappy people. Each of the Smarts—parents Eve and Michael, son Magnus, and the youngest, daughter Astrid—encounter Amber in his or her own solipsistic way, but somehow her presence allows them to see their lives (and their life together) in a new light.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
In the 1680s the slave trade in the Americas is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in "flesh," he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, and later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of 20 years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Bennie Salazar, a punk rocker in his teenage years, is facing middle age as a divorced and disheartened record producer. His cool, competent assistant, Sasha, keeps everything under control—except for her unconquerable compulsion to steal. Their diverse and diverting memories of the past and musings about the present set the stage for a cycle of tales about their friends, families, business associates, and lovers.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living-and whom he does it for.
Field Notes® Limited Edition for the fall of 2020 is the “United States of Letterpress,” which features the work of nine independent letterpress shops from across America. This series demonstrates a wide array of craftsmanship, ingenuity, and love for the age-old and tactile process of letterpress printing. Check the the short documentary film too.
There’s a full range of Memo Books and related stationery products at fieldnotesbrand.com
Field Notes is proud to once again be a sponsor of the Tournament of Books.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer "stolen" to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the North Korean state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself "a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world," Jun Do rises in the ranks. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress "so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like."
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1856—a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces—when legendary abolitionist John Brown arrives. When an argument between Brown and Henry’s master turns violent, Henry is forced to leave town—along with Brown, who believes Henry to be a girl and his good luck charm. Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity to stay alive. Eventually Brown sweeps him into the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Twenty years after a devastating flu pandemic ended civilization as we know it, Kirsten Raymonde moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave in Georgia. When Caesar, a recent arrival, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take a terrifying risk and escape. Here, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city whose placid surface masks an insidious scheme. Cora again flees, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row is dead. Thankfully her sister, Korede, knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, has a car with a trunk enough for a body, and keeps Ayoola from posting pictures to Instagram when she should be mourning her boyfriend. Korede has long been in love with a doctor at the hospital where she works. But when he asks Korede for Ayoola’s phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and how far she’s willing to go to protect her.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
At school, Connell is popular and well-adjusted, while Marianne is intensely private. But later, when they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin, Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.
Rumaan Alam (ToB 2018) is the author of the novels Rich and Pretty, That Kind of Mother, and Leave the World Behind. Why come back for the Super Rooster? “To me the ToB is an irreverent riposte to a culture too invested in prizes and competition in art, but it’s not a joke—it takes criticism and argument seriously, and it’s reliably a pleasure to watch the Tournament unfold. Judging is one of the best assignments I’ve ever had!”
Will Chancellor (ToB 2017) wrote A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall and is currently working on an alternate history of the Soviet space program (The Meaning of Certain Dreams). He recently joined The Brooklyn Rail as fiction co-editor and is publishing a monograph on Brazilian artist Lucas Arruda (Deserto-Modelo) in late October. Why return for the Super Rooster? “High school policy debate warped my perceptions of the world. I grew up thinking that there was nothing particularly strange about people attacking stacks of library books for six-hour stretches every day and then arguing in rounds about which paradigm best made sense of the world presented. The ToB itself reminds me of the ToC (Tournament of Champions) in debate. And the Commentariat reminds me of my fast-talking brethren. But above all else, it’s the voluntary rigor of the Rooster watcher that makes me smile. There’s something heroic about total commitment to the admittedly arbitrary.”
Nicole Chung (ToB 2017) is the author of All You Can Ever Know and the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine. Thoughts on returning? “I love the ToB, as anyone should if they are into books and strong but respectful disagreement. I shudder at the thought of writing a real book review, I just could never—thank god for this forum, where I can assert my highly subjective non-professional opinions about things I’ve read for an intimidatingly clever audience.”
Roxane Gay (ToB 2014) is a writer. She splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, for love. Why return to the Tournament? “I am coming back as a Rooster judge because I have a fondness for goodhearted competition. I get to read interesting books and share my opinions and read the opinions of so many smart people that always challenge me in the best ways.”
Myriam Gurba (ToB 2019) is a Mexican American writer, storyteller, and visual artist from Santa Maria, Calif. She is the author of three books: Mean, Painting Their Portraits in Winter: Stories, and Dahlia Season: Stories and a Novella.
Sarah Hepola (ToB 2007, 2018 Rooster Nonfiction Pop-up) is the author of the bestselling memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. She is currently working on a second memoir, called Unattached. Why she’s judging the ToB again: “It’s the only sports tournament I understand.”
Carolyn Kellogg (ToB 2010) is a critic, writer, and editor with opinions. A former Books editor of the Los Angeles Times who was a judge of the National Book Award in nonfiction in 2019, her work has been published widely. She can be found online at carolynkellogg.com. Why return to the ToB? “I’m returning to the Rooster because it was SO WRONG in 2010 when Andrew WK rejected the winner I’d advanced—Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women—because he liked Wolf Hall’s cover better. Also, he’s wrong: The Book of Night Women has a better cover.”
Victor LaValle (ToB 2015, 2017 Rooster Summer Reading Challenge) is the author of seven works of fiction and one comic book. His most recent novel is The Changeling. Why the ToB again? “I’m back as a judge because I’ve always remembered the Rooster fondly. The bloodsport! The thoughtful judges’ commentary. And, maybe most of all, the chain of conversation in the comments, the readers chatting and joking and arguing. It’s a fun neighborhood bar, but with books instead of beers. And despite that, I still like being there.”
Chelsea Leu (ToB 2019) is books editor at The Rumpus, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, WIRED, The Believer, Bookforum, Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, and others. Why is she back for the Super Rooster? “I’m participating in the Tournament of Books again because it’s one of the few opportunities I’ve found where I can write about books with as much raucous delight as I derive from reading them.”
D.T. Max (ToB 2013) is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace and The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery.
Helen Rosner (ToB 2020) is the New Yorker’s roving food correspondent.
Nozlee Samadzadeh (ToB producer 2010–2018) is a senior software engineer at the New York Times. What made her return to the Rooster? “Working on the Rooster for so long fundamentally changed the way I think about contemporary fiction, both via our judges tasked with the mind-bending job of inventing a rubric for comparing two books that share nothing but a publication year, but also via the all-seeing intensity of the Commentariat. I honestly can’t freaking believe that I get to step in as a judge this time after fulfilling every other possible Rooster role, and on such a deep bench! Sorry for the sports metaphor.
Choire Sicha (ToB 2005, 2006, 2016) is the editor for the Styles desk of the New York Times.
Merritt Tierce (ToB 2018) is the author of the novel Love Me Back, and a recipient of a 2019 Whiting Foundation award. A National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” author and Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award winner, she wrote for the last two seasons of the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. She is currently working on various film and television projects and lives in Los Angeles. Why return to the Rooster? “Because I discovered a book I loved the first time I judged, and I don’t think I would have read that book otherwise. So I’m both hoping for a repeat and repaying a debt of gratitude!”
Jess Zimmerman (ToB 2016) is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature. Her essays and opinion writing have appeared in the Guardian, the New Republic, Slate, Hazlitt, Catapult, and others. She has also published fiction in Paper Darts, Catapult, and Motherboard. Her book Women and Other Monsters, on feminism and mythological creatures, is forthcoming in March 2021. Why come back for the Super Rooster? “I love taking part in the ToB because it shows all the gears at work underneath our ideas about literary quality. The whole idea of a championship for ‘best book’ is obviously absurd—reading preferences are not only deeply personal but also, and less benignly, influenced by a whole host of predispositions and biases! But that’s the whole point of the ToB, and the whole fun. The ToB gamely keeps up the pretense of judging literary quality, but because we’re all writing these long justifications of our picks and then arguing over them endlessly, you see the operations of personal experience and taste with perfect clarity. The National Book Critics Circle could learn a thing or two.”
Want to join us in The Super Rooster commentary booth?
Thanks everyone, and we’ll see you next month!