April 1, 2011

Gameplay Recap
Championship Preview


Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin: John, we have much ground to cover today in anticipation of Monday’s epic championship match between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. But first we have to acknowledge that Britney Spears has a new album out, Femme Fatale. Why is that important? Because Britney Spears was the subject of our first collaboration 11 years ago, when the internet bubble remained unbursted; Salinger, Plimpton, and Mailer were still alive; and casual references to Camille Paglia and Talk magazine were as fresh as sexting during Home Ec.

(Nostalgic sigh.)

John: It’s interesting. We wrote that back in the days when we thought we were going to get rich-ish by publishing on the internet. If I remember correctly, at the time Modern Humorist (R.I.P.) was paying pretty decent cash money for such nonsense, and of course our first book, done back when we were working in colored pencil and pictures instead of words, was spawned on the back of that nascent franchise. But the bubble burst not long after, and now the internet writing economy is built largely on the backs of people like say, Anis Shivani, or us, primarily writing for somewhere between nothing and nominal dollar amounts.

This is an observation, not a complaint. Writing for free on the internet has been good to both of us in many ways. My writing-advice parody came out of an editor at a publishing house reading what I considered a one-off piece on McSweeney’s. I’m certain that my role in the Tournament of Books played some role in getting publisher attention when my novel went out for submission.

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But maybe we’re entering a new era where the internet and digital distribution is reopening the possibilities for writers to both become known and make money, independent of the traditional gatekeepers. I’m sure just about everyone has heard of Amanda Hocking, who has apparently grossed in excess of $1 million through self-publishing, now signing a traditional contract with St. Martin, as well as Barry Eisler turning down his six-figure, two-book advance to go it alone. In articles these two stories were sometimes juxtaposed as two writers going in opposite directions, but I think the truth is that they’re much more alike than different.

Back in the day, I loved the thought of the freedom of writing ridiculous things for good pay for a publication I enjoyed and two guys I respected. It seemed too easy and too good to be true, and it turns out that it was. Whatever path we now choose, today’s writer (unless you’re in the league of a Franzen or an Egan) is going to have to sing for their supper.

Kevin: I have a lot of writer friends telling me I’m stupid for being this way, but the truth is, I don’t care so much about what physical manifestation my next book will take. The business of publishing mostly bores me, and reading too much about it not only forces me to start thinking about books as commodities (which I don’t like) but it’s also a time suck spent worrying about things I can’t control. Every novel has always found its own way into readers’ hands and now there are more ways than ever for that to happen, which is great. I couldn’t be happier for Amanda Hocking (whom I don’t know) and Barry Eisler (with whom I am slightly acquainted) and Joe Konrath (who’s a Chicago guy and whom I know slightly better) and I want all of them to be successful. But trying to replicate their success (or anybody’s) is as big a waste of time as ever. I work as hard at selling my books without being an obnoxious prick as anybody, and yet the only thing the writer has ever been able to completely control is his story. These days, as far as I’m concerned, you try to write the best story you can, same as it ever was.

It’s been an exciting week in what I think has been the most engaging Tournament of Books we’ve ever had. And since you and I have been yapping about it almost continuously, we thought we’d bring in another perspective, what you might call an expert (i.e., someone whose CV does not include salacious fantasies about George Plimpton and Britney Spears, as far as I know), for some insight into this year’s tourney.

Please welcome to the booth one of America’s most influential book critics, Salon senior writer Laura Miller.

Kevin & John: Hosting Salon’s Franzen Book Club back in September, you made an interesting comment about the hype surrounding Freedom. You said, “Hyperbole is difficult to resist when a novel this low-concept has such a powerful effect.” Do you think that has something to do with the backlash against it—that many modern readers have an impulse to resist a book this conventional, no matter how effective?

Laura: I think that the problem with Freedom is that it doesn’t summarize well. Every time I tried to tell someone what it was about, their eyes glazed over. It sounds dull. And since an astounding number of people base their opinions of a book not on reading it but on reading what other people have said about it, many who reflexively reject any novel they perceive as “hyped” found cause to decide that this one was some kind of self-indulgent bourgeois exercise. (As if any novel isn’t!)

But that’s not what you’re asking. I don’t know that “many modern readers” object to “conventional” novels—I feel like there are too many assumptions packed into that question for me to address. I’m not sure that Freedom is all that conventional, or who exactly “modern” readers are. Most of what’s considered experimental these days is just abiding by a different set of conventions. I’m less concerned with the avant-garde illusion of progress than with any individual work taking the form that suits it best.

Kevin & John: You were also taken with A Visit From the Goon Squad. At a time when we keep hearing that publishers are increasingly risk-averse, is it surprising that two of the most popular and celebrated works of fiction this year (and the two finalists in our goofy little tournament) are both books that are almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t read them?

Laura: Yes. But heartening, because what a novel offers us is not an idea or a collection of techniques and strategies or even a form, but an experience. You have to experience these books to understand their merits, so that’s a good sign that many people did actually read them. Both of these writers had good track records, however, so publishing them doesn’t strike me as risky.

Kevin & John: What’s the biggest flaw in each of these novels?

Laura: The character of Lalitha in Freedom feels inorganic to me. She seems more there to serve a purpose (showing Walter what he really wanted) than anything else. Weirdly, this was also an issue for the Indian woman character in Franzen’s first novel, The 27th City. Also, while I enjoyed the ending, it seemed unrealistic to me in an otherwise fairly realistic book.

With Goon Squad, I think the theme is banal. Time is a goon, it wrecks everything: That, to me, is not a profound statement. Of course, because the novel is an experience rather than an argument, it might have made me feel this in some way, but that was also not how I experienced the book. To me, it was more like Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (presumably an influence), in that it stretches your perception of the world and the span of years the book covers just beyond the usual framework of a human mind. It’s not a tragic work, which is what the purported theme would require.

Kevin & John: What book did the Rooster committee miss out on? What should have been in the tournament but wasn’t?

Laura: Tana French’s Faithful Place. I understand that you’ve included her before as a sort of genre ringer, but I think this one is the one most likely to cross over to a literary readership. It’s a lacerating depiction of working-class identity and its discontents. I think she’s brilliant.

Kevin & John: If you could reverse one decision in this year’s tournament, what would it be?

Laura: I could not get past the first chapter of Model Home, but liked Super Sad True Love Story. I can see why some readers find Shteyngart grating, and I give him bucketsful of credit for not annoying me, since his is exactly the sort of work that ordinarily would.

Kevin & John: So, which book should win the Rooster this Monday?

Laura: Urgh. I firmly believe that once you’re talking about a certain level of excellence, the comparisons become absurd. It’s too much a matter of personal preference. I think that Goon Squad is the more skillfully executed, but I prefer a narrative with a central character, so I’d pick Freedom. I love Patty.

Kevin & John: And which book is going to win the Rooster on Monday?

Laura: Goon Squad. Franzen’s goose was cooked with this crowd the minute Lev Grossman called him a great American novelist. He’s not going to be allowed to get away with that.

Kevin & John: Thank you for your time, Laura. Note to everyone: You can read more Laura Miller at Salon and you can also follow her on Twitter @magiciansbook.

John: I think Laura Miller is dead-on about a lot of things, but most specifically this: “Once you’re talking about a certain level of excellence, the comparisons become absurd.” Each year the Rooster comes down to our final panel, 17 people making individual judgments, which we aggregate into a “winner.” The whole concept of it is absurd, but this is only true to the spirit of a tournament that was started in order to highlight the absurdity of book awards. That we now take it so seriously is both excellent fun, and terribly ironic.

Kevin: So let’s get absurdly serious and look at the deciders. We have four judges who have already ruled in favor of Freedom, while three judges have gone Goon Squad’s way, and one who picked Freedom specifically over Goon Squad. That would seem to put Egan at a slight disadvantage going in. Hmm. I don’t know. My slight personal preference is for Goon Squad, but I’m going to say Franzen wins in a close one. Freedom is a surprisingly fast and enjoyable read. If most of these judges are reading it for the first time, I think there could be a backlash against the backlash.

John: And to make it interesting, I’m going to pick the other way. My personal choice would be Freedom, but I think Laura Miller is right that it’s doomed by its status. If Franzen were up against a true underdog, I think he’d be in even more trouble, but if Freedom is Duke, Goon Squad is Kentucky. A vote for Egan is hardly sticking it to the man. Nonetheless, I see Goon Squad eking out a close one.

Kevin: Now it’s your turn, beloved readers. In the comments below, tell us which book you think will win on Monday with a guess of the judges’ tally. For example, “Freedom 10-7,” or “Goon Squad 11-6.” (The total number of votes should add up to 17.) Only one guess per person, please, so make it count, and please don’t ask us to correct any mistakes. You have until 7 p.m. Eastern, Sunday, April 3, at which point we will choose two winners at random from among the correct guesses and they will each receive an awesome prize pack from Field Notes (including memo books, steno books, pens, pencils, and other surprises), as well as a $50 gift card from Powell’s (where, by the way, ToB participants and select books by TMN contributors are 30 percent off through Monday).

If no one guesses correctly, we’ll select two of the closest entries. If only one person gets it exactly right, they’re going to get a double dose of prizes. The winner(s) will be announced in this space on Monday morning.

And one final exciting announcement: John will return as his powerful alter ego, the Biblioracle, later this afternoon at 3 p.m. Eastern. Starting then, you can note the last five books you’ve read and the Biblioracle will divine the next book you should love.

Good luck, and we’ll see you all back here for the championship on Monday.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two acclaimed novels, Cast of Shadows and The Thousand, which have been translated into more than 20 languages.

John Warner’s novel, The Funny Man, will be released late September of this year by Soho Press. For the time being, he teaches at Clemson University.

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