The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »

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From the Booth

The Lay of the Land


English, August


WARNER: In an earlier bout you were looking to be aggrieved and now it’s my turn, so I’m going to take some shots at Richard Ford. Though I’ll make sure to tread lightly so as not to receive the same Ford loogie-shower as Colson Whitehead. (Lest one think that Mr. Ford has moderated his passion over the incident, check out Ed Champion’s podcast with Ford, where the brave Mr. Champion asks about what may have happened and Ford responds—I’m paraphrasing here—”Go fuck yourself.”)

GUILFOILE: The worst thing about celebrity culture—even low-flying literary celebrity culture—is that there’s no incentive for any person who makes his living off the public to act civilly toward anyone. In fact, every time I travel I always think to myself, “Wow, if I hijacked this plane I’d sell a shitload of books.”

There are plenty of incentives for me not to spit on the other parents when I pick up my son at school. But as a writer in a world in which tens of thousands of new books are published each year, there is absolutely no downside to spitting on Scott Turow, especially in a well-lit public place ringed with camera-phone-equipped bloggers. (Turow’s a practicing attorney and a former federal prosecutor so maybe he’s a bad example, but how about Dean Koontz? There’s no downside to spitting on Dean Koontz.) None, except for the existential Jonestown in which I must kill the person I have always been, the person I was raised to be, and the person I have always aspired to be. But if I don’t care about that, there’s no downside at all. Once ambition has made me dead inside, whatever doesn’t incarcerate me makes me more successful.

WARNER: Anyway, Richard Ford owes me roughly six months of my life back, specifically October 1995 through March 1996. I was assigned the first Frank Bascombe book, The Sportswriter, as part of my studies in pursuit of an MFA in creative writing, and upon finishing it I decided that this was how all novels should be written since it was pretty much perfect to my mind and that indeed, the novel I was working on should adopt the same world-weary, funny, insightful, utterly absorbing tone. The problem was the novel I tried to apply this to was about a producer for an Oprah-style talk show obsessed with booking softball-playing Siamese twin sisters from Alabama. It only took me 180 pages to recognize that this wasn’t working out so well.

Sure, he’s paid me back with the pleasure of reading both Independence Day and now Lay of the Land, but still we’re not even by any stretch.

GUILFOILE: Yeah, despite what I said about Richard Ford being dead inside, Meloy should read the other Frank Bascombe books. They’re crazy good, and they really aren’t about real estate in New Jersey. This is about real estate in New Jersey, and frankly against English, August, it would have had no chance at all. Being in the middle of buying and selling a home myself, the Thunderdome analogy is actually closer to the actual house transaction experience than it is to The Lay of the Land. Unlike the Mad Max films, the Bascombe books won’t really provide you with much helpful information on selling your West Englewood colonial. What the Bascombe books will teach you is how to be a big mope. They’re also about the human condition and whatnot, of course, but honestly no detail of chronic male mopiness is unexplored in this trilogy.

But still, crazy good.

« Return to the judge’s decision for this match.

The Standings


• Round One •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. Absurdistan
judged by Brady Udall

The Echo Maker v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Marcus Sakey

Firmin v. Brookland
judged by Sarah Hepola

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo v. The Road
judged by Maria Schneider

Arthur and George v. One Good Turn
judged by Kate Schlegel

The Lay of the Land v. English, August
judged by Colin Meloy

Alentejo Blue v. Apex Hides the Hurt
judged by Dan Chaon

Against the Day v. Pride of Baghdad
judged by Anthony Doerr

• Round Two •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Jessa Crispin

Firmin v. The Road
judged by Mark Sarvas

One Good Turn v. The Lay of the Land
judged by Maud Newton

Alentejo Blue v. Against the Day
judged by Sam Lipsyte


Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Road
judged by Elizabeth Gaffney

One Good Turn v. Against the Day
judged by Sasha Frere-Jones


The Road v. Against the Day
judged by Andrew Womack

One Good Turn v. Absurdistan
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin


The Road v. Absurdistan
All Judges + Jessica Francis Kane