March 18, 2011

Opening Round Recap
Quarterfinals Preview

Commentary by

Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John: We find ourselves at the end of the first round and the tourney is off to one of its most exciting starts ever, with two no. 1s going down in the opening round for the first time in tournament history, or at least since we started actually paying some attention to seeding, which appears to be 2009.

In the spirit of our color commentary, in an innovation new to this year, I went out and asked obvious questions of one of our competitors, Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil, which lost in the very first match to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Picture me standing with a microphone, nodding mindlessly, periodically shouting my questions into the interviewee’s ear as the cheerleaders and acrobats make their way on to the floor for the halftime show.

Warner: Teddy, how did it feel when you found out your book was chosen for the Tournament of Books?

Wayne: Excited, then aroused, then euphoric for a few seconds, then flaccid, then, after a 15-minute refractory period, excited again.

Warner: How did you feel when you found out that Kapitoil was, in the words of one of our commenters, “the squirrel in Franzen’s talons?”

Wayne: While I didn’t expect to win against the formidable (and life-changingly-generous-with-his-endorsement) Mr. Franzen, I didn’t quite anticipate the drubbing I received in the style of the 1993 Michigan Fab Five v. the M.I.T. Freshman Intramural Asthmatics League. Still, as the young’un of the tourney, I lean to an “Aw, shucks, Coach, I’m just happy to play” sentiment while wheezing through my metaphorical inhaler. Judge Sarah Manguso is certainly entitled to her highly unfavorable opinion, but I would rather write (and read) a book that people either love or hate than one everyone agrees is harmlessly above average. So I’ll gladly make the trade of connecting strongly with some readers if at comes at the price of a few Mangusos.

Warner: What’s your favorite book in the Tournament of Books (excepting your own)?

Wayne: That would be like asking me to pick my favorite child, when you know I’m estranged from all seven of them. I’ll just say that Freedom, Room, Skippy Dies, and A Visit From the Goon Squad all pulled off things I can’t now or probably ever do, though I hope I learned a few tricks from them.

Warner: And what are you working on now?

Wayne: Some journalistic detritus, a comedic screenplay, and a new novel. Watch out, 2018 Tournament of Artistic Products Formerly Known as “Books” as Evaluated by an Esteemed Panel of Cyber-Judges Designed to Render 100 Percent Objective Literary Assessments Before Destroying Their Creators!

Thanks, Teddy!

One of the most fun, but perhaps most uncomfortable parts of the Tournament of Books is the way the reader comments hold us accountable for our own decisions, some of which we don’t remember making. One of the real controversies early in the tournament has been the seeding, with quite a few commenters lamenting the A Visit From the Goon Squad v. Skippy Dies match as one of both books being “underseeded” and too heralded to meet in the opening round. There’s also a question regarding Jennifer Weiner’s promotion of Room on her own website, as well as the inclusion of a book that’s probably not imaginative fiction (Nox) in a tournament supposedly reserved for such things.

Field NotesBuy anything from Field Notes from now until the end of the ToB and receive a special “reading list” memo book free, while they last. Use coupon code ROOSTER.

The reason I’m listing all of these here is because it’s time for me to kick it over to you, which means you’ll have to take the first swing at responding.

Kevin: I would like to say that the reason you abruptly handed the mike to me just now is that you recognize my superior intellect is better suited to explaining the complex mathematical system we use to seed books in this tourney. Except I know that you know such a system doesn’t exist, except in the way that the mysterious and involuntary calculations performed by our frontal lobes when choosing to watch The Bachelor over the Jim Lehrer News Hour can be called a complex mathematical system.

There are inherent difficulties in setting up a bracket like this. One is that when we decide on the shortlist, we haven’t read all the books. Some of the books in the tourney, none of us had read yet. And we do it months in advance, and entirely by angry committee. And we were probably drinking, which likely explains the first-draft inclusion of a book called The Farticulant GRbBlti of Limoncello.

We have an informal tradition of giving books that win major awards not just a pass into the tourney, but also a pretty high seed. We started doing this so we could compare our award to theirs, and I think it’s a good idea, but it leads to some randomness. I think if it had been done later, Goon Squad might have been a no. 1. I’m not sure. But I don’t really regret the way we did it because we ended up with some really interesting opening-round matchups and we now have interesting quarterfinal matchups, and I think that adds tension to the tournament from beginning to end. We really don’t intentionally set out to make any book a calf for the sacrifice. And I’m excited that we had a couple of upsets in the opening round.

As for the Room v. Bad Marie controversy, Jennifer Weiner quite dutifully informed us beforehand that she had previously lauded Room and given away copies of it as a prize on her website. She assured us, however, that she could be impartial. And because changing the books around at that point would have been logistically difficult (by which I mean, “would have required driving to the post office,” something that was inadvisable due to the previously cited limoncello) we decided to disclose that information and move forward the way it was—and I don’t see anything in Weiner’s judgment that makes me believe she wasn’t giving her honest opinion. She could have been just as in love with Room without having given away copies of it on her website; even if we had given her two different books to judge there would have been no guarantee that she didn’t already love one of those novels, as well. Jennifer Weiner reads a lot of books, people.

No judge of any literary contest comes to the process without having any favorites or prejudices whatsoever going in. In the case of most book awards, where a handful of writers and critics lock their doors and argue it out over Skype (or so I imagine), I suspect every individual probably has some book they are privately championing at the outset. We never claimed that the Tournament of Books removes bias from the process. To the contrary, because we talk almost constantly about our preferences and about how absurd and unfair it is to compare works of literature in the first place, the ToB probably seems like the most biased book award of all time.

Especially to Marcy Dermansky. Read Bad Marie! It’s really good!

John: Another thing we should mention is that in the midst of climbing into our cups, we often bat around some of the ideas introduced by the readers in the comments. One of this year’s most intriguing ideas was the concept of a consolation round, where opening-round losers go into a competition amongst themselves, with presumably the top two that emerge from that process becoming our zombies. The unfortunate constraint we’re working under, however, is time. We always need to make sure that the judges have enough time to read the books, at least two weeks, since a truncated reading time would disfavor longer works, or maybe make us gun-shy in including them in the tournament. The reading and judging process for this year’s tournament actually began in January, and it’s sort of impossible to move it back any further.

Plus, given that you and I exist entirely on diets of Four Loko and Girl Scout Thin Mints in order to fuel ourselves as we crank out the commentary, having any additional rounds would probably flat-out kill us.

Kevin: All true.

I have an exciting announcement in a minute, but first, in the continuing interest of full disclosure, I used to be a creative director at Coudal Partners, one of the brain-fathers of this year’s tournament presenting sponsor Field Notes. Now, they came up with that particular genius stroke after I had left the company to go be a writer and dad, so I have no financial interest at all when I say that Field Notes are the official notebooks of the notes I take. I even created my own Field Notes hack involving Duck tape and an index card so it will fit in this little holder that goes in my pocket with a pen and other useful things. They really are awesome and handy. My wife uses them too, for whatever it is she does. And so we’d like to repeat, if you place any order with Field Notes during the tournament, be sure to enter the coupon code ROOSTER to receive a free and very cool, limited-edition ToB memo book (while supplies last).

And I want to remind everyone that Powell’s is offering 30 percent off all the ToB competitors for the duration of the tourney. You can also get the same discount on acclaimed books by ToB judges Rosecrans Baldwin, Jessica Francis Kane, and Anthony Doerr, plus my latest novel, as well.

Glancing ahead to next week’s quarterfinal matchups, Freedom v. Room is obviously the one they’ll be discussing in the salons and cafés and gentry parlors over the weekend. I’m also really looking forward to Model Home v. Lemon Cake. And of course, we have our near-homophonic Cinderellas, Next and Nox. One of those two books will be advancing to the semifinals.

Finally, it’s time to peek under the blanket we use to cover up the stunned zombies that had been clubbed with a shovel in the opening round and see which ones are still twitching. For people who aren’t familiar with the Zombie Round, we asked TMN’s readers back in January to vote for their favorite book from the list of 16. That way, when we get to the Zombie Round (it’s after the semifinals; see the right-hand column on this page), we take the top two reader favorites that have been eliminated from the tournament by that point and give them a second chance to do battle.

And so, if the Zombie Round were held today, the two books that would be raised from the dead are, in no particular order (unless alphabetical is an order), Bloodroot and Skippy Dies.

We still have a lot of ToB before then, however.

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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