Wolf Hall
  • March 30, 2010


  • Commentary by

    Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

  • Today’s Winner:

    1Wolf Hall

The Book of Night Women

John: Oh, Kevin, this one hurts. It hurts bad. It’s not like it’s the most capricious judgment in Tournament history, but oh to see one of my favorite books of the year eliminated this way just sucks. Andrew W.K. describes both books as “intense,” but there’s nothing particularly intense about Wolf Hall. In fact, I’d say its chief hallmark is how measured the tone is throughout the novel. The whole thing is a very slow burn, if it burns at all. I’m not convinced that Andrew W.K. read beyond that family tree.

It’s not that I think Wolf Hall is some kind of turkey that doesn’t deserve praise or recognition, since its already received plenty. But The Book of Night Women hasn’t received nearly enough, and here it is, knocked out on an apparent caprice, and now I feel like all of our readers and commenters who get irrationally pissed when one of their favorites doesn’t make it through.

If I had any of Andrew W.K.’s CDs, I’d take them out and burn them right now.

Which brings me to a question. In our digital age, what are the nutcases going to burn when they want to stage a protest? Will they be tossing their Kindles and iPads into the fire? One upside to the digital format is that the nightmare scenario of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will likely never come to pass since we may not have physical books by the time a totalitarian government takes over. The downside is that a detonation of an EMP weapon could wipe out all of the written word.

As much as I believe in the role of digital distribution of books and other texts and have embraced the Kindle, it’s hard to imagine that the physical book will be stamped out. Most importantly, paper is far more permanent than a digital file. Just the other day I stumbled upon the original drawings for one of our earliest collaborations, the George W. Bush campaign diaries we published on Modern Humorist that provided the springboard to our book, My First Presidentiary. Even having been done on newsprint, the paper holds up, and though I’m grateful that John Aboud and Michael Colton continue to pay the hosting fees to keep the Modern Humorist archives alive, at some point I’m pretty certain it’ll all disappear.

Which is why, when I read a book on the Kindle that I end up loving, I buy it in hard copy—which means if James Hynes becomes one of our judges and ends up rendering a verdict I disagree with, I’ll be prepared.

Kevin: Wow, I hadn’t seen that old George Bush thing in 10 years. They sure don’t hand out book contracts like they used to!

I live in Chicago. Not even in Chicago anymore, but the suburbs of Chicago. I live in the drive-thru part of flyover country. So, and it’s embarrassing to admit this because I am younger in my head than I am in my joints, when I was told Andrew W.K. was going to be a celebrity judge (and saw how excited all my New York friends were over the news) I had to look him up on Wikipedia. And having read his bio there I could not be more confused about his actual identity. Who wrote that wiki entry, Mark Danielewski?

Having read a bunch of Wolf Hall and none of The Book of Night Women, I have to say I’m not surprised by Andrew’s verdict. Wolf Hall is a pretty impressive book, even if it’s not one I could warm up to right away. In fact, Wolf Hall reminds me a little bit of ’80s supermodel Jerry Hall, who was also long, with indisputable beauty and charm, who was enjoyed in bed by many Britons, and to whom I was never attracted. (Saving you the trouble.)

John: Sorry, I can’t let this one go yet. While we were throwing today’s commentary back and forth over email you pointed me toward this essay by Marlon James on the business of publishing where he discusses some of the difficulties he had in trying to find a publisher for The Book of Night Women. The story is hardly unique, and any of us who try to find our fortune (not that there’s fortunes to be made, but you know what I’m saying) in publishing will recognize the tale, but with three years of hindsight and having read and loved his book, the specifics of James’s take are even more striking. That this book deserved to be published is an absolute no-brainer. This fact was apparently even clear to the publishers who were passing on the book, but pass most of them did because, as related by James, they didn’t know what to do with it.

Look, nobody should mistake me for a dreamer or an idealist who believes that publishing decisions can be or should be made solely on the basis of literary merit, but let me observe that I think the best possible reaction an editor or publisher can have to a manuscript is to say, “I don’t know what to do with this.” What this is, it seems to me, is the old gray matter saying something along the lines of, “Wow, this is stunning/unique/unclassifiable, I haven’t read anything quite like this before, and it has blown a breath of Febreze-fresh air through my noggin, and given that I’m a professional who is exposed to literally thousands of hopeful manuscripts a year, and this is one of a small handful that strikes me as not only accomplished but different, this is exactly the book I should be publishing.”

Thankfully, someone said yes to Marlon James and this book, otherwise we would’ve been deprived of the experience of reading it. Of course, this leaves me even sadder about this outcome because maybe The Book of Night Women would benefit a little more from a Rooster victory than Wolf Hall (if there is indeed any benefit).

And maybe I’m projecting, but I don’t want to talk about that.

Kevin: And speaking of capricious decisions, there has been much uproar in the comments about Jason Kottke’s decision yesterday, where he selected The Lacuna over N.B.A. winner Let the Great World Spin after a judgment that focused primarily on the physical properties of the two books he had been assigned rather than their content. I didn’t comment on it because, frankly, I thought Jason’s tongue was in his cheek a little bit, and also because I’ve done commentary on well over 100 matches over the last six years, and if a judge here and there wants to talk about something other than the words between the covers, well, I can relate. But if you want to follow a discussion on the topic, the ToB commentariat is doing a fine job.

Actually, I think the reason you were most upset about this decision is that a win by The Book of Night Women would have given you a substantial lead in our side wager and an inside track on that awesomlicious tin of bacon-flavored popcorn I have staked. As it is, I increase my lead just a bit, 226-217.

An indication of how little known The Book of Night Women was among readers, despite being one of the most highly praised and best-loved novels in this year’s Tournament, is the disparity between your respect for it as demonstrated in your confidence rankings and the lack of support it received in this year’s Zombie poll. You rated only one book higher, but among our reader selections, only one other book received fewer votes.

And with that it is finally time to reveal this year’s Zombie pairings. Interestingly, both matches will feature no. 1 seeds against re-animated no. 4 seeds. On Thursday, The Lacuna will take on an undead Miles From Nowhere, which received the most votes in the pre-Tournament reader poll. New York mag’s Sam Anderson will render that verdict. And on Friday, Wolf Hall plays host to a brain-eating Fever Chart, which received the second-greatest number of votes. Julie Powell, author of the halfway-eponymous Julie & Julia, will weigh in on that one.

That second match should be particularly interesting. There probably aren’t two novels in the tourney less alike than Wolf Hall and Fever Chart—and I’m throwing Logicomix in the mix when I say that.

The winners of these two matches will face off Monday in the Rooster Championship. First up, though, Andrew Seal will be back tomorrow with some final statistical analysis, as well as a look forward to what we can expect in the remainder of the Tournament.

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.

blog comments powered by Disqus