Today, The Morning News Selection Committee announces the contenders for the Sixth Annual Tournament of Books, the one and only March Madness battle royale of literary excellence, presented by Field Notes. This year's tournament will begin in March, and so it is time for our annual distillation of the rules. It’s also your chance to determine the contenders for the Zombie Round.
First, though, we’d like to recognize this year’s presenting sponsor, Field Notes, who make those beautiful little notebooks that are perfect for when you need to jot something down—not to remember it later, but to remember it now. (If you need a pocket notebook to keep track of your Rooster picks, this would be the one.) We’d also like to offer our thanks to our books partner, Powells.com, and also to our media sponsor, the great people at Urban Outfitters.
Now, to the blood sport. For those of you who are new to the Tournament of Books, it’s literary awarding gone ferocious, March Madness-style.
Each spring we take 16 celebrated novels from the previous year and seed them into a competitive bracket like the kind used in the N.C.A.A. basketball championship. A group of judges is enlisted, and the tournament plays out over the course of five rounds of matches in March. Each match sees two books battling head-to-head in brutal combat, with a judge explaining how he or she has chosen to move one of them to the next round.
Yes, we’ve had judges who flipped coins. So has the National Book Award—but the National Book Award won’t tell you that.Along the way, we ask our judges to lay bare their publishing affiliations and literary prejudices—to clear the cigar smoke left behind by the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize committees—and we also give you, the readers, a chance to help determine the winner. Our semi-finals round is called the Zombie Round because, based on your vote (see below for how to participate), two books that are eliminated early get a second shot at life, returning from the dead to take on the presumed finalists.
Finally, we declare one work of fiction to be the Champion Book of the Year, and we award/threaten its author with a live, angry rooster, the official Tournament of Books mascot, named after our favorite character in contemporary literature, David Sedaris’s brother.
If all of that sounds confusing and strange, check out this N.P.R. interview we did last year, which puts it a bit more lucidly.
Now, before we get to the judges and shortlist, let’s also review what this shortlist of books is not. It is not a list of the 16 best books of the year.
How could it be? We haven’t read every book that was published in 2009. Not even close. In fact, none of us has even read all 16 of these books, at least not yet. Some of these titles, none of us have even cracked. Put us all in a room together and ask what a couple of these stories are about and you’d probably get an awkward silence and a bit of giggling in reply.
All of these books have been acclaimed, although not universally. Some were picked for their obscurity, some because they won a prestigious award. Some made the list because they are beloved by millions, others because they’re popular overseas. One is a collection of short stories and one is a graphic novel. A couple were added because individuals we respect advocated passionately on their behalf. And many, many, many terrific books almost made the sweet 16, and we were sad we couldn’t include them all.
But note that the arbitrary nature of this contest does not make it more random than other book awards. For all their diligence and secrecy, book awards rely on the particular tastes of a very few individuals combined with the art of compromise. Not only can book awards not tell you what the best book of the year is, frequently the winner of a book award is not anyone’s actual favorite, but rather not anyone’s least favorite.
What the Rooster stands for is not definitiveness, but transparency. Transparency and fun. You will know who is judging, what their biases are, and why they make their decisions. You can follow along as each contender is passed from reader to reader and judgments are handed down, sometimes passionately, sometimes haphazardly (and sometimes, in the case of Dale Peck in 2006, not at all). We have had judges who admitted they didn’t finish their books. We’ve had Rooster winners who came back as judges the next year, on the condition that we commission for them an aggressive T-shirt. And yes, we’ve had judges who flipped coins. So has the National Book Award—but the National Book Award won’t tell you that.
Each year at this time we also note that we were drunk when we came up with this idea. It’s true: We were in the pool room of a small, dark bar in Brooklyn six years ago, and the next day we decided that this stupid, silly, dare we say profoundly necessary idea still sounded fun. It’s been a blast every year since, and we can’t wait to welcome you to this year’s tournament once it gets underway on Tuesday, March 9, 2010.
There will be surprises. There will be new features. There will be prizes. There will even be an official Tournament statistician (more on that soon). Until then, get your Rooster news here on TMN, Twitter, and join us on Facebook. We hope to see you soon.
Kevin Guilfoile, ToB Commissioner
Rosecrans Baldwin, Andrew Womack, ToB Co-Chairs
The 2010 Tournament of Books Judges
Sam Anderson is a book critic at New York magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is a founding editor of TMN. His first novel, You Lost Me There, will be published in August 2010 by Riverhead Books.
Alex Balk is a co-founder of The Awl.
Nic Brown’s short story collection, Floodmarkers, was published in 2009 and selected as an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times book review. His first novel, Doubles, will be published in July 2010. His fiction has appeared in the Harvard Review, Glimmer Train, and Epoch, among other publications.
Alexander Chee is the author of Edinburgh. He is the Visiting Writer at Amherst College.
Jane Ciabattari is president of the National Book Critics Circle, a founding blogger on Critical Mass, and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Her work has appeared in Bookforum, npr.org, the Guardian online, the Daily Beast, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama, Lost Magazine, and Fictionaut (and on her website).
Meave Gallagher is a contributing editor at TMN and a founding editor of Vegansaurus. She lives in California.
David Gutowski runs the popular music and culture blog Largehearted Boy.
Jessica Francis Kane is a contributing writer for TMN. Her first novel, The Report, will be published in September 2010 by Graywolf. Her first book, Bending Heaven: Stories, was published in the U.S. and the U.K. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including McSweeney’s and Virginia Quarterly Review, and has been serialized on BBC radio. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children.
Carolyn Kellogg is a critic and blogger for the Los Angeles Times.
Jason Kottke blogs at kottke.org. He lives in New York City.
C. Max Magee created and edits The Millions. He has appeared on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and Minnesota Public Radio’s “Midmorning” and has written for Poets and Writers, The Rumpus, and various other online and dead-tree publications. He and his wife live in Philadelphia.
TMN managing editor Kate Ortega is an editor at the online edition of the Wall Street Journal. She lives in Brooklyn.
Julie Powell is the author of Julie & Julia and Cleaving.
Andrew W.K. is a musician, motivational speaker, and party maker.
Andrew Womack is a founding editor of TMN.
Molly Young is a blogger and a contributor to n+1.
The 2010 Tournament of Books Shortlist
The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker
Fever Chart, by Bill Cotter
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis
The Book of Night Women, by Marlon James
The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle
Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore
Miles from Nowhere, by Nami Mun
That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo
Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower
Lowboy, by John Wray
Please now vote for your favorite to be a contender for the Zombie Round (the page will redirect to TMN once your vote is submitted). Voting will close on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 Voting closed. See you in March! In the meantime, you can keep track of the Rooster here on TMN and Twitter, and join us on Facebook. Thank you.