Miles From Nowhere
  • April 1, 2010

    Zombie Round

  • Commentary by

    Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

  • Today’s Winner:

    1The Lacuna

The Lacuna

Kevin: After readers released the Kraken on the last two judgments, I really don’t think anyone can accuse Sam Anderson of not giving great consideration to his decision. That was as thoughtful a review as we’ve ever had at the ToB. What’s interesting to me about it, though, is that after reading it I definitely want to tackle Mun’s book more. Maybe he was overcompensating with praise because he felt badly about sending Miles From Nowhere to the bench, but I was actually surprised when he chose The Lacuna at the end. Maybe Judge Anderson just has a keen eye for misdirection after watching so many rose ceremonies on The Bachelor.

Or maybe, when forced to choose between two things he valued equally, he blurted out the wrong book at the end.

John: Sam Anderson demonstrates himself to be the kind of reader/book lover that I think populates most of our viewing audience, and as such, my hunch is that this judgment will seem more satisfying, regardless of whether or not we may agree with it, which I pretty emphatically don’t. The Lacuna, for all its ambition and scope, feels constructed to me. Miles From Nowhere feels like it was birthed, and for me, that made all the difference in my enjoyment.

I share much of the audience’s ire over the Semifinal judgments, but as you pointed out, all of these things have plenty of precedent in the grand scheme of Tournament of Books history. We’ve come into some heat for the choice of judges, but that’s pretty easy in hindsight. I figure if people are asked and they say yes, they’re essentially agreeing they’ll do the best job possible; I don’t think any one judge failed to hold to that standard, even if we may find the results lackluster. We are all imperfect. Thanks to our open comment system we get to vent about those imperfections.

But really, you have to wonder if any literary prize doesn’t have more than its share of judging a book by its cover/front matter/name on the spine going on. I note from the press release [pdf] for the recently announced PEN/Faulkner Award that the three-person jury, “considered close to 350 novels and short story collections published by American authors published in the U.S. during the 2009 calendar year.”

I make special note of the word “considered” because obviously they weren’t all, you know, read. Clearly, some kind of potentially arbitrary process allowed for the culling of the herd to something more manageable for deeper consideration. It was probably a lot like the culling process each individual goes through as they decide what to read for themselves. Some significant portion of those almost 350 entries was a waste of time because they were doomed by some (likely subconscious) bias among some member of the three-person panel.

The winning book, Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, never even got on the Tournament of Books radar as far as I recall. It’s definitely not on the longlist of titles. I haven’t read it, but it seems like a bit of a hodgepodge, a collection of loosely thematically linked pieces in different forms, including poetry. I’ve got to wonder if a book this obviously odd would’ve even attracted the notice of the committee if the author hadn’t been someone so accomplished and well known. (Alexie’s name is above the title on the cover, letting us know what the true selling hook for this book is.)

I’d like to see the PEN/Faulkner release some kind of transcript of their deliberations so we can see how almost 350 became one. I don’t mean to impugn the integrity of the contest any more than what I’m saying implies to all contests—it seems that winning is almost a random decision. We could probably do a lottery among those almost 350 entries and announce one winner and four finalists, and no one would really question it because it would seem plausible for just about any of those books to be considered for this award.

What does all that mean? I don’t know, it’s been a long Tournament.

Kevin: The journey a book takes to a book award is kind of similar to the journey it takes to publication. Success has much to do with merit, but a lot to do with luck, as well. Even a very good book has to land on just the right people’s laps—the agent, the editor, the salesperson, the bookseller—and all of those people have to really “get” the book if it is going to be a success, or even make it to the bookstore. The author releases his or her book into the world, then the novel has to run this gauntlet alone. The writer has almost no control over any of it, and the most arbitrary decisions can knock it out for good.

John: One of the more frequent questions I get from my students, or others just getting their feet wet in writing, is how they can know if they have sufficient talent to succeed. I have two answers: 1) you can’t; and 2) it doesn’t matter anyway. The limiting factor to just about any hopeful writer’s career isn’t talent. It’s far more a matter of diligence, and once that diligence has been given its due, as you say, at that point, it’s up to the Fates.

Kevin: So The Lacuna advances to the Championship, an outcome I think surprised us both. Kingsolver’s book really has outlasted all comers. The next question is whether the match will be a Clash of Titans (see how I bring that Kraken thing back?) or a David versus Goliath story. That’s in Julie Powell’s hands now.

(Speaking of Julie Powell, look who’s a judge over at the ToB-inspired Tournament of Cookbooks: Why it’s Nora Ephron, the director of Julie & Julia based on a book by, yes, Julie Powell! That’s some cross-tourney synchronicity for you, I tell you what. Also, having checked out that site, I’m now thinking what our Tournament needs is more recipes. If, in the middle of Tuesday’s judgment, Andrew W.K. had offered readers his recipe for Burnt Tomato Halves, the comments would have been far more forgiving.)

Every win by The Lacuna continues to punish you in our private confidence pool. My lead is extended to 246-229 with just two matches remaining. A Fever Chart win tomorrow would really put you back in the race. But since I have both The Lacuna and Wolf Hall ranked (just barely) higher than you do, a win by Mantel will lock up a wheel of that stinky South Carolina cheese for me.

Kevin Guilfoile is a contributing writer for TMN. His debut novel, Cast of Shadows, has been translated into more than 17 languages, and his second novel, The Thousand, will be published in August 2010 by Alfred A. Knopf.

John Warner is a contributing writer for TMN. He is the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant. He teaches at Clemson University.

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