The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

The 2009 ToB Contenders List

The 2009 Judges & Brackets

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ToB T-Shirts

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#ToB Tweets

Previous years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Contact the Tournament staff:

John: I’m glad to see that John Hodgman reminded everyone that before he became better known as a tactless neurosurgeon on Battlestar Galactica he was indeed a literary agent, and a good one at that. I have a distinct memory of him talking you and I off a ledge over some contract issues we were having over My First Presidentiary. (An uncompensated favor to two internet acquaintances no less.)

Hodgman illustrates another of our reoccurring themes in judging books that our transparency makes apparent, the weight of expectations.

With a couple of weeks of hindsight, as I look down the initial tournament list and reflect on my reading experiences, I see how significantly expectations have affected my responses. With Netherland, I’m certain my comments are overly judgmental, mostly because I was all-too-aware of the critical hype (and the locus of said hype) for the book. I think I initially put it towards the bottom on my personal rankings, but if pressed, I would’ve chosen it over the books it was matched up against in each of its first two rounds.

For The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, I entered with literally no expectations one way or another. Freed from prejudice, the book was allowed to soar on its own terms. I can’t say I was surprised because I wasn’t measuring it against anything, but I was, for sure, delighted.

2666 I had mixed feelings over. On the one hand, I tend to like the somewhat messy and maximalist (Pynchon, Foster Wallace). On the other, it’s just really fucking long. After I read the first 30 pages I told a friend that I thought it was going to be really good and interesting. I was intrigued by the deadpan tone and the oddness of the story, and the mysterious setup regarding Archimboldi. But after another 60 pages I already found myself ground down and defeated by the book. It became impossible for me to see any virtues because all I could think was how bored I was and how far there was to go. Reading out of duty isn’t going to get anyone anywhere and surely caused me to pile up more than my share of resentment.

To bring this thinking around to the current match-up, my initial take on A Mercy was much cooler than it is today. In my personal rankings I had it third from the bottom. In my comment on its first round contest, I called it, “Morrison reduced calorie.” I’m sure some of that was disappointment over my buddy’s book going down to defeat, but primarily it was me comparing the book against the best of what Morrison had done in the past. A Mercy never had a chance against the weight of those expectations. Now, I tend to think of it as “Morrison concentrate” instead. Add water and you get Beloved.

Here and there in the comments or blog postings about the tournament I’ve read people saying that thanks to what the judges and/or we have to say they’ve been induced to give a book a shot (City of Refuge) or not (2666). While on the one hand I love the thought that my opinions carry so much influence, the truth is that all our opinions have done is allowed someone to confirm their previous judgment and expectation and in some ways, I think that’s a shame.

I’m not saying people should stop commenting on books. It’s the opposite; the more the merrier. I am saying, however, that in the end, you shouldn’t necessarily listen to anyone but yourself.

Kevin: You and I and John Hodgman have known each other about 10 years now, since we were all writing for McSweeney’s in the days of the comparatively benign internet bubble. John H. did me another solid after I finished Cast of Shadows and as a result he is possibly the only person outside my family who was thanked in the acknowledgments of both my books, even though I don’t think we’ve actually ever been in the same room together (the fact that, when his BSG episode aired, I was watching at home dressed very convincingly as a Six doesn’t count).

As you and Hodgman both point out, A Mercy is a much better book after you’ve read it. It’s not a lot of fun while you’re in the thick of it, although Morrison’s prose contains many moments of pleasure. Still there’s hardly a paragraph of it that’s forgettable. When John mentions the scenes of Florens lost in the woods or her humiliation in front of the town leaders, I not only remember them I remember the sensation of reading them. I don’t just remember the “I am already kill by you” quote, I remember the twinge in my gut when I read it.

John Hodgman says A Mercy advances. So say we all.

My Revolutions isn’t able to crack the top four in the Zombie results, but since we’re at the end of Round Two let’s shake things up again. As we head into the pre-Zombie semifinals, we’re going to eliminate two more of the contenders and see what would happen if the Zombie Round were held today.

There could still be a reshuffling depending on which novels lose the next two matches, but as of right now the top two books in Zombie voting among those that have already been eliminated are (in alphabetical order):
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
  • The Lazarus Project

Reader Comments

On March 24, 2009 at 12:04 PM Jack said…

So this year ToB has a celebrity judge in John Hodgman! And the new literary celebrity Junot Diaz, last year's ToB Rooster winner. Has the tournament sold out?

No, I don't think so -- quite the opposite...

Knowing something about the judge, for me, has a real impact on how I evaluate his or her decision on a match. Last year the only judge I knew was Nick Hornby, author of "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" -- both made into films. I liked Hornby's books very much and was prepared to be heavily swayed by his decision.

The fact that Hornby picked Junot's "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" in that match -- which became the eventual 2008 Rooster winner could be cited as evidence that he was a good judge. But, in fact, it was the clarity of his writing, the reasons he gave for selecting it, which really helped me decide book was best. But then I read them and made my own decision...

So what's to be made of John Hodgman and his decision this year? I've seen him in "Battlestar Galatica" and on "The Daily Show" -- and, like everyone else in the universe -- as "a PC" on those Mac computer ads. No one mentioned the Mac ads... Was that because Hodgman played the bad guy, always complaining, always suffering, reliable for making bad judgments in every one? (And he was brilliant doing it!)

Now, of course, MicroSoft has retaliated with its own "I'm a PC" ads featuring near-infants and children ranging up to the distinguished age of 9 all using PCs with ease, saving the world for Windows' consumers. What's Hodgman got to say about that? (Actually, I'd really like to know, since he's a real blast as a comic!)

So the truth is: we have a comedian as a judge for this contest between Morrison and Kunzru. And since I like comedy so much, once more I'm prepared to be heavily swayed by this judge's decision.

And as it did last year, it turned out to be the reasoned argument of the judge which carried the most weight -- not my favorable bias toward the person. Hurray for good writing!

Hodgman wrote one of the clearest yet judgments in this year's tournament. He eschews basketball or sports metaphors (very wise) and dives right into the heart of the matter -- what are the merits of each work? I haven't read much of either Morrison or Kunzru except for a couple of short stories. Hodgman's writing makes me more interested and more willing to read both novels -- and left me feeling that his choice of winner was just. Bravo, John!

Previously I'd been mostly disappointed with the quality of the judges' reasoning and writing. Now my faith in the ToB has been restored.

Looking ahead....

As the Zombie Round approaches, I'm a bit disappointed that "The Dart League King" isn't one of the zombies ... since both commentators Guilfoile and Warner were so taken with it. And I read a chapter of "Dart League" online and it impressed me quite favorably...

On March 25, 2009 at 5:02 PM Kim said…

While I enjoyed all the reviews of the ToB, especially the first review and it's basketball structure, as I was reading this review I thought it was the best written thus far. Thank you John!

I decided before the ToB to read "Mercy" and it's nice to have my decision affirmed. Friends who've read it believe it is best experienced in one sitting and not to read it too fast.