What’s All This?

A Primer to the Tournament of Books

If we were to give a prize for the least disingenuous arts and entertainment industry award, we would give it to the Brandcameo Product Placement Awards, which are presented unironically each year to the motion pictures and commercial products that have combined in the most prolific and profitable ways. Movies exist to earn money first. An entertaining screenplay or moving performance is merely a means to making that money. Therefore, it seems just as fitting to present Tide detergent with an award for its appearance in The Theory of Everything as it is to give Eddie Redmayne an award for his. Now that we think about it, handing out prizes for commerce makes way more sense than handing them out for art.

And yet, we endure.

This is the 11th year of The Morning News Tournament of Books presented by Field Notes, and we’re extremely proud of that fact. Yet before nearly each of those seasons we have taken a day like this one before the actual event begins to deny that we have any right or authority to hold this contest at all.

Precise numbers are difficult to come by, but there are somewhere around 100,000 works of long fiction published in English every year. We have chosen just 16 of these to join our party, but our shortlist should not by any means be considered a definitive compilation of the best works of fiction from 2014. Ten different people could easily make a list of their favorites without any overlap, and they might all be terrific.

Every year the Miss America pageant holds a contest and at the end of it, when they put a bejeweled tiara on one of the women, nobody says, “Yes, we did it! That is certainly the best unmarried woman in the United States and its territories!” Certainly not the folks at the Miss USA pageant who have an entirely different set of young American women parading in spangled swimsuits and high heels vying for a coronation with identical criteria. On the surface, our quest to crown a Tournament of Books champion is at least as stupid as that. But we believe the Miss America pageant would be way more interesting if the judges were miked instead of the contestants.

What we try to do is open up the process so it is entirely transparent. At every step the reader will know exactly why one novel is moving forward and another is eliminated. The Rooster exists only so there can be a conversation around it, and along the way the reader will be invited to join it. So we can talk about contemporary fiction. So we can talk about why we choose which books to read. So we can talk about why we love some novels more than others, and why somebody else disagrees. That, we hope, is not so stupid.

For the uninitiated, the ToB is an annual event here at The Morning News in which 16 of the previous year’s best and most-talked about works of fiction enter a March Madness-like battle royale. After a month of dueling, one novel will win the Rooster, a prize named after David Sedaris’s brother, and its author will be threatened with the presentation of a live he-hen.

Here’s How It Works

Each weekday in March, two works of fiction will go head to head, with one of our 16 judges choosing one to move ahead in the brackets. Along the way, each judge reveals his or her biases and interests, any connections they have to the participating authors, and, most importantly, an elaborate explanation of how they decided between the two books.

Following each day’s decision, we will have color commentary in the form of a dialogue between two novelists. This season our ToB Chairmen, authors Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, will return, but we also will be introducing a new pair of voices to the commentary booth: authors Elliott Holt and Laura van den Berg. Think of it as a bigger-picture view of the proceedings from experts who not only have read a ton of fiction, but who are also familiar with the way they publish the sausage, to bastardize a phrase. Then we leave it up to you, the readers, to add your own passionate thoughts and rebukes to the mix in the comments section.

From the eight opening round matches to the four quarterfinal matches through the two semifinal matches, the original field of 16 competitors is whittled down to two books. However, before those books can enter the final, championship match, they must compete in the Zombie Round, which brings back two books that were eliminated during gameplay.

This is how the Zombies are chosen: Before the tournament begins each year, we ask The Morning News readers to vote for their favorite novel from among the 16 that will enter the competition. When we reach the Zombie Round during gameplay, the two books that received the most popular votes from among the eliminated rise from the dead with another shot at reaching the championship.

The two books that emerge victorious from the Zombie Round enter the championship match, which is decided by all 16 judges plus an additional tiebreaker judge. Each judge picks their favorite of the two final books, and the book that receives the most votes takes home that year’s Rooster.

For more on how we chose the books in the contest, read this year’s ToB announcement. And the action doesn’t stop with each day’s judgment—you can find more here:

The action begins on Monday. We hope you enjoy it, and, even more importantly, join in!

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