March 8, 2010

The Pre-Game Primer


Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John: Year six of the Tournament of Books, amazing. Think of all the things that never made it to six years: the Carter Presidency, Tiger Woods’s marriage, Battlestar Galactica (either version). Can we call ourselves an institution yet?

I’m excited to put the Rooster-red blazer back on and join you in the booth for this year’s commentary. In a continuation of a tradition reaching back to last year, we’ve tried to actually read the books in the Tournament. I think I might’ve done a bit better than you, having completed 14 of 16 and sampled the other two. This is mostly due to me having read four of the contenders prior to the announcement of the brackets, though.

Kevin: I started reading with the intention of running the table, but life intervened, and by “life,” of course I mean Life Unexpected, which airs Tuesday nights on the WB. They’re calling it “Juno meets Gilmore Girls”:

RORY: He’s so dumb. He watched The Breakfast Club and then taped his butt cheeks together.

JUNO: Use a dick, Rory! I love it.

LORELAI: Please leave my house.

JUNO: Douchepacker.

I finished better than half of this year’s contenders, and if I can inject some early optimism into the proceedings, I personally found this year’s field to be very strong. It might not have as many novels coming in with as much hype as we had in past years, but there’s a lot of parity here. I have in my mind the book that I think is the one to beat, the one with a target on its spine, but I expect a lot of unpredictability along the way. I mean, other than me saying something really stupid, which is a given.

John: The Tournament starts against the backdrop of a book industry in the midst of a once-every-several-centuries upheaval, thanks to the major splash of digital books with the Kindle and Nook and the impending release of the iPad. Last Tournament I discussed reading finalist City of Refuge on my iPod Touch since I’d found it so hard to acquire in physical form. This year, I read all but one book on the Kindle. One of the themes we may want to talk about as the Tournament progresses is what impact, if any, do we think these shifts will have on books and readers.

Kevin: I read them all Gutenberg style, so I’m curious if that will impact our impressions at all. I can think of at least one novel in competition, and you probably know which one, whose existence is something like an argument for holding a book in your hands.

John: I do know which book you’re talking about. I read it on the Kindle and it went just fine, probably to the chagrin of the author.

Kevin: You know, I got so tired of the lame and ubiquitous “‘iPad’ sounds like a feminine product!” jokes that I started referring to my wife’s pads as “kindles.” Not that I have occasion to refer to them all that much.

John: We should also note one of our new wrinkles for this year’s Tournament, our mano-a-mano confidence betting pool. Each of us has assigned points for this year’s books from 16 down to 1, 16 being the highest confidence that the book will win the Tournament, 1 being the lowest confidence. For each round, we will earn points depending on those confidence rankings by utilizing the following formula:

Opening Round Win
Quarterfinal Win Semifinal Win Zombie Win Championship Win
Points x 1
Points x 2 Points x 4 Points x 4 Points x 8

In the tradition of these things, we have decided to wager items and goods native to our places of residence, kind of like when the mayors of New Orleans and Indianapolis bet on the outcome of the Super Bowl. If Indianapolis had won, their mayor would’ve received a case of Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix. Since the Saints won, Indy had to give up David Letterman.

It wasn’t easy to think of something representative of my home state of South Carolina to wager. I’d like to offer up one of our lunatic politicians, but Illinois already has plenty of those.

So instead, under the slight possibility that you will win our little challenge, I’m offering a 1-3/4 pound wheel of the world-famous Clemson Blue Cheese, because nothing says “I’m pissed I lost” like stinky dairy products that will molder in your fridge for a couple of years.

Field NotesKeep your lists of books, quotes, and sketches in Field Notes Memo Books. Check our exclusive offer for ToB readers.

Kevin: And I shall put up gourmet popcorn—specifically Chicago Fire Mix in a custom-painted tin from Madly Pop’N in Oak Park, Ill. This is the same popcorn that was featured in swag bags at last year’s Emmys, so if it’s good enough for a noshing Ellen Burstyn, it’s good enough for you.

John: To keep each other honest, we have revealed our rankings to one another, and will unveil them publicly as the Tournament unfolds. Everyone should note that they do not necessarily reflect our personal preferences, but are instead our best guesses at how likely we think each book is to win the Tournament, said guess rooted in our longstanding association with the Tournament and a sophisticated analysis of past winners and—I’m kidding, we basically pulled them out of our asses, like every sports-related prognosticator does. We do, however, have another new wrinkle for the fans this year: the official Tournament of Books statistician, Andrew Seal, who has broken down the results by every factor save the authors’ zodiac signs, and will be weighing in with his own analysis throughout the Tournament.

Kevin: I’m not saying I’m good at this prognosticating business, but any day now I am expecting an express package of Marillenknödels after the surprising U.S. victory in Nordic Combined.

John: We’ve got some interesting matchups in the first round. As usual we’ve got a wildcard, the graphic novel Logicomix against a Booker Award winner in Wolf Hall, and Lowboy and The Help is an interesting pairing, pitting a critically acclaimed author against the bestselling first novel of recent vintage. I don’t want to give away too many of my future confidence picks, but I can say that in the 1 versus 4 matchups, I’ve got my eye on A Gate at the Stairs v. The Book of Night Women. Lorrie Moore’s hotly anticipated novel was celebrated in many corners, but assailed in others, with almost 40 percent of its current Amazon reviews being one or two stars, suggesting it’s a feast for some readers, but a famine for many others. I’m liking Marlon James for an early-round upset.

Kevin: I also loved A Gate at the Stairs, and can’t wait to talk about it. And I’ve got my eye on tomorrow’s matchup between Let the Great World Spin and Miles From Nowhere. I haven’t read the latter, but LTGWS is a really extraordinary book, according to me. If Moore and McCann both get ushered to the exit in the first round, you may consider my bracket busted.

John: Andrew Seal breaks down the numbers into some fascinating little tidbits, which suggests that debut authors (in this year’s Tournament, that includes Wells Tower, Bill Cotter, Nami Mun, and Kathryn Stockett) are at a decided disadvantage, having won only 40 percent of their opening-round matchups. At the same time, authors on their fifth (or more) books win the round almost 60 percent of the time. Margaret Atwood should maybe be measuring her yard to build a pen for that rooster she’s going to win, which, if you’ve read The Year of the Flood, would totally be ironic.

Kevin: And once again, no one should let us have the last word. The comments will be open throughout the tourney so everyone can weigh in on the verdicts and maybe even give an extra boost to terrific books that are nevertheless eliminated in the early rounds.

The Rooster. Starts. Now.

And by “now,” I mean “tomorrow.”

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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