The Tournament of Books

Here Comes the Rooster

It is time to announce the contestants, judges, and brackets for the original, one-and-only, full-combat, oddly-predictive-of-the-Pulitzer-Prize, eighth annual TMN Tournament of Books, coming March 2012, presented by Field Notes.

Credit: Coudal Partners

Once again, it’s that time of year when otherwise mature adults paint their faces in the palettes of their favorite book jacket designers, and all across Facebook college kids post pictures of themselves Nabokoving. Yes, we’re talking about book awards season.

We are excited this morning to announce the books, judges, brackets, and Zombie poll that will become The Morning News 2012 Tournament of Books, presented by Field Notes.

Though maybe it’s not exactly book awards season. The 2011 National Book Award shortlist was announced last October and the trophy was handed out in November—the literary NBA season being similar to the basketball NBA season in spanning multiple years with a hyphen. “And the award for the best novel published between September of 2010 and October of 2011 (exempting the month of August 2011, when everyone in publishing was in the Hamptons reading books that will be released in late 2013) is…”

Then again, we’re not much better. Today we’re announcing the shortlist for the 2012 Tournament of Books (for novels, of course, published in 2011) only a week or so into the New Year. See, this is the space where we remind everybody what a folly this exercise is. It’s stupid. A tiny and secretive cadre of people telling everyone else what the best novels of the year are is every bit as ridiculous as an electoral system where anonymously endowed Super PACs tell everyone else which willfully ignorant global-warming denier should be president.

Like we said, stupid. But we do it anyway. And the one thing we humbly offer is transparency, and a rooster for the winner. We do not meet in a closed conference room and slide our decision under the door scribbled on the back of a car-wash receipt, like they do with the Pulitzer. And unlike the National Book Award, we have a series of fail-safes designed to preserve the integrity of our prize by ensuring that we do not mistakenly include books that are homophones of the actual finalists in our shortlist. We are proud to say that the system ultimately worked, but not in time to avoid an apologetic phone call to to the biographer of British painter Copley Fielding.

In the Tournament of Books, you will know who the judges are. What their biases are. Which books they choose and why they are choosing them. In the past we’ve had judges who flipped coins. Judges who picked the book with the prettiest cover. Judges who didn’t finish one of the books. Judges who didn’t finish either book. Once we had a judge who so hated both books we had to literally subdue him physically to make him choose. (When we say “literally” we really do mean literally, though when we say “physically” we mean “politely in an email.”)

How the Tournament Works

Whether it’s your first time or your eighth time, here’s the deal. A ridiculously small and poorly informed group of TMN editors and contributors have chosen 16 of the most cherished, hyped, ignored, and/or enthusiastically praised books of the year to enter into a month-long tournament, NCAA-basketball-madness style, beginning March 7, 2012.

To create that list, we drew from a body of titles that we started building last January, and also consulted our TMN readers, where people like you, maybe even actually you, suggested their top reads of the year. Still, these are not the best 16 books of the year. You could produce another list of 16 books that would be every bit as deserving. Some books were dismissed for petty reasons. Some books were no doubt included for arbitrarily aesthetic ones. And there’s no getting around any of that, as far as we can tell.

We’d like to pause and note here that once again the great Powell’s Books is our Rooster books sponsor, and you should consider buying all your ToB books from them.

Last year the field was evenly split between male and female authors. This year we have nine men and seven women. Last year all the entrants were white, and we felt a little bit bad about that. This year, without handing the entire enterprise over to a series of politically correct checks and balances, we think we’re a little more ethnically diverse, pending a Wikipedia search for exactly which box Michael Ondaatje checks on the census.

Not everyone will be happy with our list, is what we’re saying, nor should they be.

We take these books and seed them, with the odds-on favorites receiving “1” seeds and longer shots receiving “4” seeds. Then we place them in an NCAA-style tournament bracket and assign books in pairs to judges, who read both assigned books, advancing one. Each judge is required to make a choice and also required to explain their choice (and Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, our booth announcers, plus special guests, will comment on those decisions). After the first round of combat, the eight advancing books are pitted against each other, and then the four remaining books become two.

When the judges have eliminated all but two books the competition moves to the Zombie Round, and this is where we need your help.

In the Zombie Round, the two books most favored by TMN readers, but unfairly tossed aside in an early round by the capriciousness of a power-mad ToB judge, will rise from the dead to do battle against the only two undefeated novels of the tournament. The winners of those matchups become the Tournament of Books finalists. Each will be read by the full complement of 16 Tournament judges, plus an additional jurist, and the resulting tally will yield us the 2012 Tournament of Books champion, and its author will be awarded/threatened with the presentation of a live, angry chanticleer.

If all of this is still confusing, check out the previous tournaments, or listen to NPR’s “All Things Considered” explain it more simply.

What Else We’ve Got Going On

We are very excited about this year’s tourney. We have a lineup of 100 percent first-time judges, including literate celebrity Wil Wheaton, and celebrity literate Walter Kirn. We are continuing the tradition of bringing back a contestant from past years and slipping a judge’s robe—complete with Gilbert and Sullivan epaulets—over her shoulders; this year it’s the great E. Lockhart, whose Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks had one of the most enthusiastic cheering sections in Rooster lore in 2009.

We also have a reader judge, Roxy Reno, who won our contest to vault over the balcony railing and join the fight—in fact, she’ll be judging from a jail cell, where she is serving a year for a non-violent offense.

But now we need you to do three things. Check out the judges below. Check out the books. Then follow the link to a poll to vote for your favorite Rooster competitor. The results will be kept confidential but will be used to determine which books return in the Zombie Round.

Got it? Great. Now here are this year’s books, judges, and brackets. Vote for your Zombie pick, grab a Field Notes notebook to keep track of your thoughts, head over to, and get reading. And don’t forget to start a gambling pool in your office. This is about the only time of the year that reading books can be made into an actual illegal activity. At least until Rick Perry is president.

The rooster crows in March. See you then.

The 16 Books That Will Compete in Our Eighth Annual Battle Royale

In a moment, you’ll be able to vote for your favorite book. But first:

Our Esteemed Judges for The Morning News 2012 Tournament of Books

Alex Abramovich is a writer and editor in Astoria, Queens, and Oakland, Calif.

Misha Angrist is the author of Here Is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics. His fiction has appeared in The Literary Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, Nature, and Best New American Voices, among other places.

Mark Binelli is the author of the novel Sacco And Vanzetti Must Die! (Dalkey Archive) and the forthcoming nonfiction book Detroit City Is the Place to Be (Metropolitan/ Henry Holt), and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives in New York and Detroit.

Jay Caspian Kang’s debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published in August 2012 by Hogarth/Random House. He is an editor at Grantland and writes for the New York Times Magazine.

Haven Kimmel is the author of numerous books. She belongs to a nearly extinct religious sect, and lives in rural Chapel Hill, N.C.

Walter Kirn is a novelist, critic, and essayist whose books include Up in the Air and Thumbsucker, both of which have been made into movies. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and the Atlantic. He lives in Livingston, Mont.

E. Lockhart has written eight young-adult novels, among other things. She was a finalist for the National Book Award and a Printz honor recipient for The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which was also a ToB contestant (and Zombie) in 2009. She has a doctorate in English literature.

Missy Mazzoli is a composer and the leader of the band Victoire. Her music has been performed all around the world by Kronos Quartet, the Minnesota Orchestra, and New York City Opera, among others. Victoire’s debut CD was named one of 2010’s best classical albums by Time Out New York, NPR, and the New Yorker, and her first opera, Song From the Uproar, will debut in February 2012 at the Kitchen in New York City.

Duncan Murrell is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and The Normal School. He is the writer-in-residence at the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, and a former editor at Algonquin Books.

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life (FSG, Fall 2012) and The Sicily Papers, and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, McSweeney’s, and other publications. She is currently a staff critic at

Bethanne Kelly Patrick is the Executive Editor of, has tweeted as @TheBookMaven, and believes in the future of books and reading in an optimistic (some say “childlike”) way. She has written two books for National Geographic and is working on a novel. Patrick lives in Arlington, Va., with her husband and their two daughters.

TMN 2012 reader judge Roxy Reno is an outlaw artist and poet, and is currently serving a year in the Outagamie County Jail for a non-violent offense.

Alyssa Rosenberg is the culture blogger for ThinkProgress and a correspondent for Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.

Emma Straub is the author the short story collection Other People We Married and the forthcoming novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. She works as a bookseller at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, and wants to talk to you about baked goods on Twitter @emmastraub.

Oscar Villalon is the managing editor of ZYZZYVA. The former book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and a longtime book critic, his work has appeared in VQR, The Believer, the Los Angeles Times, Black Clock, and He also reviews books for KQED’s state-wide radio program “The California Report.”

Wil Wheaton is an actor (Eureka, Leverage, The Big Bang Theory), author (Just a Geek, The Happiest Days of our Lives), and blogger (Wil Wheaton dot Net: In Exile). He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Anne.

Edith Zimmerman is the editor of The Hairpin. She lives in Brooklyn and sometimes writes for the New York Times Magazine.

Your Official Brackets for The Morning News 2012 Tournament of Books

Download them here.

And Now It’s Zombie Time

Choose your favorite title in our 2012 Zombie Poll. One vote per person. Poll closes Jan. 18, 2012.

In the meantime, don’t forget to follow the Rooster conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for the latest updates. We’ll see you for the tournament on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. Happy reading, and see you then!


The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s most recent book is Everything Now, winner of the 2022 California Book Award. For his other books, try More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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