March 7, 2012

The Pre-Game Primer


Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

In case you’re new, The Morning News Tournament of Books is an annual book event—2012 is our eighth year—pitting 16 of the best novels from the previous year in a March Madness-style battle royale.

Here’s how it works: Each weekday in March, a judge evaluates two books and chooses one to move ahead. On the final match day, all the judges weigh in on the remaining two books, selecting one to receive our award, The Rooster (named in honor of David Sedaris’s brother). Each day, there’s also commentary from our play-by-play officials, Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, as well as you, the audience. One special note: Just before the Championship match, we have a special “Zombie Round” where the would-be finalists must battle our readers’ two favorite books that were already ejected earlier in the competition.

If all of that sounds confusing, try this 2009 explanation from NPR’s “All Things Considered” or critic Laura Miller’s write-up in Salon. We hope you enjoy the tournament!

John: Eight years. We’ve been doing the Tournament of Books for eight years, one more year than my high school shop teacher had fingers. Eight years makes us an institution, and like any institution, you’ve got to keep changing to stay fresh and relevant. Just ask the Grateful Dead.

Right. So instead, maybe successful institutions need to be wary of trying to fix things that aren’t broken. We’ve tried to strike a balance, retaining all the innovations that have improved the experience over the years—Zombie Round, robust reader comments—while also trying to find some fresh blood.

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 is the author of the novel The Funny Man and teaches at the College of Charleston. He is also known as the one-man book recommending service, The Biblioracle.

I’m going to be honest, this one sort of snuck up on me, and I’ve only managed to read 13 out of the 16 competitors, with 1Q84 “in progress” with an estimated completion time of 12 Thursdays from now. We have a doorstop tradition in the tournament, and 1Q84 officially weighs in as the second longest in the history of the competition, edging out 2666, but falling short of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.

Kevin: The doorstop novels have provided us with some of the most enduring narratives and entertaining moments in the tourney. In 2007, the first round pitted Against the Day against the graphic novel Pride of Baghdad. This is how judge Anthony Doerr summed the two up:

Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day took me 22 days and two international flights to finish. I read Brian Vaughan’s The Pride of Baghdad during lunch. Twice.

On page 108 of The Pride of Baghdad, for example, there is only one word: “Grahhhhh!”

Pages 112 and 113 feature two words: “Nah!” and “Unh!”

There are lots of words on all of the pages of Against the Day.

In 2009, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 was the subject of my favorite ongoing discussion about a book ever in this tourney. Round after round, you and I scratched our heads over our disappointment with it—going into pretty great detail about why—while Bolaño fans very eloquently came to his defense in the comments. It was great. When I think about the ToB at its best, I think about 2666. Then again, when I think about endlessly repetitive and misogynistic descriptions of corpses that have been anally raped, I also think about 2666.

Of course the one thing doorstops are not very good at is winning the Tournament of Books. The big novels almost always win the early rounds and lose the later ones. We’ll see if that pattern holds this year.

Field NotesBuy anything from Field Notes during the ToB and receive a special red, letterpress memo book free. Use coupon code ROOSTER.

John: At the start of the competition I always like to look for themes, and this year, we clearly have a youth v. experience thing going on. On the youth side we have Ward, Harbach, Obreht, Russell, Cole—all young people with highly praised, award-receiving books. The veterans are represented by some big-time names competing in our blood-soaked dirt ring for the first time: Patchett, Barnes, Murakami, Ondaatje, Hollinghurst.

And as in any situation where there are only 16 slots for hundreds of competitors, some feelings will turn hard over those left out. At the end of the last year’s tournament, I would’ve bet hard money that The Pale King would be in our mix, but in the interim, most seem to feel that for all its moments of brilliance it is more artifact than novel. I wonder if there are any books you, Kevin, (or you the readers) really wish were here.

Kevin: I will say that The Pale King was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I had this year. But it was pleasurable in a bittersweet way that has more to do with my connection with other David Foster Wallace books. If I can compare reading a great novel to being in a romantic relationship—one filled with excitement and longing and discovery, where when you’re not with the book all you’re thinking about is how long it will be until you can get back to it—reading The Pale King was like finding photographs of a beautiful ex-girlfriend in a desk drawer. There is amazing stuff on those pages, but I’m frankly glad it’s not an entry this year. It just wouldn’t have been fair, to Wallace or to the other novels in the tourney.

What books would I have liked to see in here? You know I love T.C. Boyle, and he had an excellent novel out early last year—When the Killing’s Done (just as I wish there could have been a tourney that included Infinite Jest, I wish there could have been one that included Drop City). I think Ready Player One and the Tragedy of Arthur would have made for excellent discussion. But I’m also really pleased with this field. There are a lot of great novels here, a lot of books people feel passionate about and, as you say, a lot of huge names who have never been in the tourney before.

John: Personally, the competitor list leans a little toward the conventional for me. Last year we had Ann Carson’s Nox, which confounded us and the judges as to what it even was. This year, Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl is the most formally inventive, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods the most off-kilter in terms of story, and Murakami is Murakami, but by and large in terms of formal properties, many of these books would look comfortable in the 19th century.

(I say this not as criticism, but as observation.)

Kevin: Of the two of us, you are the bigger fan of experimental fiction, so I’m hardly the authority about which books belong here. (Experimental books have also fared poorly in the past.) I haven’t read Green Girl yet, but I am very interested to see what the reaction to Lightning Rods will be. It’s a book that made me laugh out loud over and over again. But structurally it’s extremely odd. There were times when I thought it might have been written on a dare.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

I think we started having this conversation last year, but I wonder how much of the formality of this year’s entries is due to the bias of the selection process and how much of it is a general return to that kind of writing in literary fiction. As styles come in and out of fashion, I wonder if there’s an unconscious pushback against meta-fiction going on in the collective literary brain. The Art of Fielding is an extremely old-fashioned novel. The language in Open City is so formal at times you think you’re reading Dreiser or something. It’s a year when the most uttered literary phrase was “Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie novel, for crying out loud.”

Of course the only collective brain that matters this month belongs to the judges.

John: Indeed, in addition to the books, it’s the judges who make the tournament, and the observant fan may notice that we have all-new judges in this year’s tournament, including some people whose talent and erudition, quite frankly, intimidate me.

Kevin: Our judges this year include the great Walter Kirn, of whom you especially have been a longtime fan; our old friend Wil Wheaton, whom you and I have never met but whom we nevertheless grew up with. We also have a reader judge, Roxy Reno, who is currently serving six months in jail for what has been described as a “non-violent” offense. I believe the phrase you are looking for to describe this year’s judges is “all-day badassery.”

John: Your trip through doorstop memory lane above also reminds me that the tournament itself has become an artifact, that each year we’re leaving behind a kind of relic that just possibly says something about what happened in literature in a particular year, something that says a lot more than a one-line statement that somebody won a prize. I try not to spend too much time being sincere, but as we kick things off, let me say that I’m proud of us.

And of course, another important contributor to the tourney is our sponsors.

Kevin: Yes, thanks again to Powell’s, and also to our title sponsor, Field Notes. I will point this out shamelessly again and again, but there is a series of ongoing references in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! to one of the characters writing entries in his “Field Notes.” I can only assume either Miss Russell is a fan of our favorite little notebook, or this was her attempt to butter up the tournament moneymen and gain inclusion in the ToB. Note to writers working on their 2013 manuscripts now: Apparently, that works!

The Rooster kicks off tomorrow with the wonderful Emma Straub choosing between the sedately British Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending, and the hyper-violent American debut, Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time. Will Barnes show up in a red coat, marching all in a line, ready to be picked off by the upstart rebel? Or will Pollock be undone by Barnes’s Bond-like cool as he monologues his way through his deadly, criminal master plan?

Can’t wait, brother. Let the blood sport commence!

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