The Rooster

The Seven Veils of Self-Importance

The bets are in, the brackets are filled out, and the judges have sharpened their knives. Welcome to the 2006 Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powells.com.

Awards are nice. Ask anyone who’s ever received one (except for Marlon Brando and Johnny Rotten). For novelists, who toil largely in solitude, awards are especially prized. More common than you might think is the celebrated author whose books have been read by millions, whose words have affected lives by the tens of thousands, but who still believes his career has been a failure because five strangers have yet to lock themselves in a sterile conference room with a supply of veggie pizzas and Red Bull and emerge some hours later to announce (probably as a result of an undisclosed 2-1-1-1 plurality) that his book is the very best of the year.

Here at TMN, we want to get in on that.

But, as we said, if we’re going to engage in the dubious exercise of turning art into competition, why not operate in an environment of total transparency? Let’s just admit the finalists were chosen in a mostly haphazard manner, that we likely overlooked as many deserving titles as we included. Let’s release the names of the judges and reveal their biases, and make the reasons for every decision available for all to read. Most importantly, let’s seed the books into a wagering-friendly, N.C.A.A. basketball-like tournament bracket and force 16 of the best-reviewed novels of the year into a winner-take-all battle royale of literary excellence, a phrase that one of these days we will get around to trademarking.

For those who are new to this, here’s a quick rundown. Each book has been assigned a seed, with the top positions going to the books that were the most celebrated and hyped in 2005. More details about the selection process are available in an earlier post on the subject, but like Oprah we gave preference to books we thought would most appeal to our audience. In fact, our staff selected just 14 books and then we added two novels—Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—that ranked highly in our pre-tournament readers poll. All in all, our readers’ seven favorite books from 2005 are represented in the tournament.

In the early rounds, a different judge is assigned to each pairing. He or she reads both books (we assume) and selects a winner, which advances to the next round. Each judge also writes a short review explaining his or her decision. When the tournament whittles the competitors down to the final two, all the participating judges plus an additional tiebreaker judge read the final two books (we assume) and vote on which of those authors gets to feed and care for The Rooster, our illustrious award.

The sight of thousands of TMN readers holding up their purple index fingers for the benefit of sentimental news photographers would be a spectacle we’d find hard to stomach.And somewhere along the way there will be a twist. We’re telling you now just so no one accuses us of making this shit up as we go along.

Several people wrote us after last year’s tournament requesting more reader input into the contest. We agreed that this would be fun, but didn’t want to turn the ToB into an election. Frankly the sight of thousands of TMN readers holding up their purple index fingers for the benefit of sentimental news photographers would be a spectacle we’d find hard to stomach. But after each decision we will allow readers to express their approval or disapproval of the judgment through an online poll and this poll will serve as a kind of “shadow tournament” to the real thing. Just like ballots in an actual election, these votes won’t count, but the voice of the readers will be recorded, endlessly debated, and eventually ignored.

Following through on another suggestion from last year, ToB Commissioner Kevin Guilfoile will be adding commentary to the competition each day and in later rounds we might even bring a guest into the booth.

The first of many judgment days is tomorrow (a new judgment published each weekday until the tournament’s done), with judge Choire Sicha deciding between the highly regarded—and highly PR-machine’d—The History of Love by Nicole Krauss and Dave Bergen’s stealth bomber, The Time in Between. It’s guaranteed to be a joyful bloodbath.

Welcome to the 2006 Tournament of Books.

biopic

The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s latest novel is The Last Kid Left (NPR’s Best Books of the Year). More by The Tournament of Books Staff