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

What the Dead Know


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


JOHN: I recently went to one of those book sales where they temporarily rent out un-leased retail space and then stack a couple of thousand copies of remainders around the room, organized (very loosely) by genre, but not much else. I love these things for their possibilities, for the thrill of the hunt. I picture myself as a rescue boat converging on a shipwreck, on the scene to salvage as many survivors as possible before they cross from the remainder bin to the incinerator.

Invariably as I scope the room, I gather more and more books into my arms—this highly praised debut story collection, that novel by the author whose other book I liked that one time, any title by someone I know (whether I’ve already read the book or not), and so on—and by the time I reach the checkout table with aching arms, I have a significant haul, though since nothing is more than $5, it feels almost like stealing.

But then, when I get home, inevitably these rescuees wallow in stacks, often unread because there are books constantly being released that, instead of requiring a last-minute reprieve, I’ve been anticipating like a 10-year-old space nerd in 1969 waiting for the moon launch.

These emotions invariably color our response to the work. Sometimes it’s in the form of an unexpected surprise, the “that’s better than I thought it would be” phenomenon. Other times it’s the “that’s not what I thought it would be, or wished for” phenomenon. For example, when I was a child, my mom had a brief spasm of injecting some health into our baked goods and tried substituting carob for chocolate. She made the tactical error of telling me. I knew that I already liked chocolate, loved chocolate; this carob, on the other hand, I did not know. I took one bite of the carob brownie and promptly spit it on to the plate. If mom had just slipped the stuff in Jessica Seinfeld-style (or is it Missy Lapine-Chase-style?), I never would have noticed and today, as an adult, I’d be much less likely to have a handful of peanut M&M’s for breakfast.

What does this have to do with this round of the ToB? Read the subtext, people. Laura Lippman didn’t have a chance.

KEVIN: I was signing books in Virginia once, and this guy comes up to the table and starts asking me a whole bunch of questions about the craft and business of writing, the kind of questions you always get at these things—What compels you to write? What time of day do you write? How did you get your agent? These are usually the questions you get right before someone pulls out the tattered manuscript they’ve been working on, so I try to cut to the chase and I ask the guy, “Are you a writer?” And he looks at me like that was a strange question to ask and he says after a thought, “No. But I’ve always been a pretty good speller.”

Everyone is always asking me the difficult question, “Why do you write?” But no one ever asks me the far more important question, “Why do you read?”

Maybe because we think the answer to that is obvious. But Elizabeth’s defense of her decision is, in fact, an eloquent essay about just that. She spends most of it telling us how good Laura Lippman is at her craft, detailing the reasons Lippman novels are so satisfying and entertaining, even admitting, quite archly, that when a literary novelist is able to tell a story with the skills Lippman employs, he is called a virtuoso. And then also admitting, as you say, that What the Dead Know never had a chance.

Over the past two years I’ve spoken to something like 70 book clubs that were reading Cast of Shadows. And if I took this essay and read it to that mostly homogeneous group (white, female, over 30) that nevertheless is a pretty good representation of the majority of fiction readers, I think it would be fairly controversial. I think a great many would say, “Elizabeth is exactly right. That’s why I read.” And another group would say, “No, I mostly want someone to tell me a good story.” And I think another would say that they want to be transported to a place or a time, and that story and character are secondary. And another would say that they want information. That they want to learn something. They want to enjoy the license of fiction, but they want the nourishment of non-fiction.

So I just want to point out, for the millionth time, the marvelous absurdity of this exercise. That it’s not just enough to say that the appreciation of literature is subjective, but that this subjectivity is moving constantly along several different axes. The great lesson you learn when you write a novel and then go out and talk with people who have read it is that every single one of those individuals has read a completely different book.

It’s also the biggest thrill.

« Return to the judge’s 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