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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Powell's Books


From the Booth



The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


JOHN: It’s the triumph of the nerd. Congratulations to Junot Díaz and his fictional protagonist, D&D-playing Yunior, whose charms were frequently cited by our judging panel as the reason to pull the lever for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

If the keys to real estate are location, location, location, the corresponding cliché with literary fiction is character, character, character. It seems that if you can find that engaging character, you go a long way to winning an audience over.

Our finals presented an intriguing match-up on this front, one title (Oscar Wao) being driven by the depth and humor of its first person narrator, with the other (Remainder) having a narrator whose voice and affect is almost totally flat. If Remainder asks you to look at the pile of leaves and catalog each and every aspect of each individual leaf, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao asks you to jump in and roll around.

As several of our judges note, the narrator of Remainder isn’t even named. The brain trauma has flattened him out and left him the sum of his obsessions. Remainder puts the reader in the position of outside observer. We are not absorbed into this man’s world, but are spectators to it. This happens to mirror the life of the narrator who has been dislocated from his own memories, and even feelings, beyond what he can recreate in the moment. For some, this becomes a fascinating, page-turning exercise. For others, it’s an exercise in frustration.

Clearly this is going to be a polarizing experience, but a polarizing book has passionate fans, some of who are on display among our judges, even as Remainder goes down to a fairly resounding defeat.

Díaz, on the other hand, has produced a book that seems almost (Helen DeWitt excepted) universally loved, a true book of the year.

Let me also note that this is the third year in a row that the ToB has essentially confirmed the judgment of a more traditional prize granting organization with Díaz having previously won the National Book Critics Circle award. It’s also the third year in a row where a lower-seeded upstart clawed its way to the finals only to get turned back by the favorite. (Last year it was Absurdistan losing to The Road. In 2006 Home Land was turned back by The Accidental.)

Díaz’s book was highly anticipated and it delivered, which is a feat in and of itself. For this he gets the highly coveted and well-deserved Rooster.


KEVIN: Congratulations to Junot Díaz. Last year The Road won the ToB by forging a path of devastation through our judging panel. Oscar Wao won this year by turning on the charm.

A few housekeeping matters: First, Tony Doerr asked to abstain from the final decision due to academic matters far more pressing than the forced redistribution of the literary chicken population. We granted his request, much the same way that Harry Reid allows Senators Obama and Clinton to miss votes on appropriations bills when their yeas or nays won’t affect the result. We thank Tony for both his service and his honesty. I’m only guessing but I’m willing to bet in the 100+ judgments served at the ToB in the last four years, there have been a handful in which the judge didn’t admit that he hadn’t read one or both novels. I’m also betting our percentage of books actually read is better than that of most award juries.

Secondly, Mark is joking once again when he says, “the less I say, the better.” Of course we encourage Mark to speak his mind at all times, and for the record (or for anyone who cares, which seems to be a lot of you) we’ve all hugged it out over email and we’re already planning what dishes/liquors we’ll each be bringing to Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s not something we were thinking about, but there does seem to be something about this format that provides these upstart books with a fighting chance, at least until the final round where they inevitably seem to get crushed Cloverfield-style by the consensus pick. This year we got to have it both ways—clashes of heavyweights in earlier rounds followed by a Rocky vs. Apollo Creed matchup in the final (I suppose it’s more Lennox Lewis vs. Oscar de la Hoya, although that’s not exactly right either because Lewis would have about 100 pounds on de la Hoya, and also de la Hoya is Mexican, and I probably should have just aborted the analogy when I couldn’t think of any Dominican-American boxers, but oh well).

Finally, thanks to all the readers who help grow this event each year, and thanks especially to everyone who emails one of us (or posts on a blog) that they discovered a book they love, a favorite book, only because of the Rooster. It happens to me every year, too. We are a modest enterprise, and that is more than we could hope for.

I’m totally kidding. More than we could hope for would be the overly generous affections of an elderly and eccentric hamburger heiress.

But emails are super-nice too.

Junot’s right. T-shirts would be bad-ass.

« Return to the judges’ decision for this match.

The Standings


• Round One •

Tree of Smoke v. Ovenman
judged by Tobias Seamon

The Savage Detectives v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Elizabeth Kiem

Then We Came to the End v. Petropolis
judged by Anthony Doerr

You Don’t Love Me Yet v. New England White
judged by Jessica Francis Kane

Run v. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
judged by Kate Schlegel

What the Dead Know v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Elizabeth McCracken

On Chesil Beach v. Remainder
judged by Ze Frank

The Shadow Catcher v. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
judged by Helen DeWitt

• Round Two •

Tree of Smoke v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Mark Sarvas

Then We Came to the End v. You Don’t Love Me Yet
judged by Maud Newton

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Ted Genoways

Remainder v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Mark Liberman


Tree of Smoke v. Then We Came to the End
judged by Gary Shteyngart

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Nick Hornby


Then We Came to the End v. Remainder
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Savage Detectives
judged by Andrew Womack


Remainder v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
All Judges + Jennifer Szalai