Artistic awards are like wet kisses from your Aunt Mabel. You should be gracious when you get one, but actually seeking one out is kind of unseemly. And yet every year, our most esteemed, and especially elderly, writers crank out novel with important theme after novel with important theme in the desperate pursuit of the Pulitzer or National Book Award or Nobel. And then a bunch of guys in a conference room halfway around the world go ahead and give the thing to Doris Lessing. (Like the Nobel committee, I too once pretended to understand what Canopus in Argos was all about.) Anyway, it’s enough to make Philip Roth cry and we are not in favor of anything that makes Philip Roth cry, which is why we are also against the unexamined values of the middle class and the songs of Harry Chapin.
A few years ago some of us were up late and we were talking about this very thing, about how much we enjoy literary awards in spite of the fact they are also silly and arbitrary. The idea that we should accept the word of any small group of people—people in most cases whose names we don’t even know—about a topic so subjective as the best literature of the year is pretty ridiculous, and forcing authors to compete against each other is just stupid on its face. We were also drinking quite a lot, which I mention because by the next morning we had the rough outlines of something called The Tournament of Books, in which we would seed the year’s most celebrated works of fiction in a March Madness-type bracket and pit those novels against each other in a “Battle Royale of Literary Excellence.” In honor of our favorite character in contemporary literature, David Sedaris’s brother, aka “The Rooster,” we decided to present the winning author with a live chicken.
We still intend to do that, someday. My mother grew up in Brooklyn, where 97 percent of the world’s fictionalists now live, and she had a pet hen. There’s no reason Jonathan Lethem couldn’t have one now.
The Tournament of Books, we vowed, would be completely transparent. The names of the judges would be known to all, and the judges would admit to their own personal biases as well as their reasoning for every decision. The winner of this award wouldn’t be any less arbitrary or any more legitimate than the winner of any other award, but the crowning of our arbitrary and illegitimate Best Book of the Year—the Champion Book of the Year, would be lots more fun.
And it has been, three years running, with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road taking top honors. As Smith noted in an email to the editors, “I am cock-a-hoop! I have NEVER won a prize of which I’ve been more delighted and proud. Thank you, TMN for this great, great honour.”
You’ll notice that our sponsor, Powells.com, has discounted all the books by 30 percent. And this year, though it's none of our doing, Coudal Partners and a bunch of other cool companies will be buying books for kids if you lay down a little gambling money and take a chance to win some cool prizes. So get buying, gambling, and reading before the blood begins to fly!
ToB Commissioner Kevin Guilfoile
ToB Co-Chairs Rosecrans Baldwin & Andrew Womack
Contestants in TMN's 2008 Tournament of Books
Click here to download the brackets for the 2008 Tournament of Books [PDF].
The following links will take you to Powells.com, who are offering a special discount on these titles for TMN readers.
Run by Ann Patchett
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Petropolis by Anya Ulinich
Ovenman by Jeff Parker
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
New England White by Stephen L. Carter
Remainder by Tom McCarthy
The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke