Normal People
  • March 31, 2020


  • Sally Rooney

    ZNormal People
    4Optic Nerve

    MarĂ­a Gainza

  • Match sponsored by

    Quail Ridge Books
Optic Nerve

In the championship match, all of this year’s judges read both finalists, vote for one to win, and briefly tell us how they made their choice. Here are their verdicts.

Meghan Deans: A good and strange final match. Interiority, two ways. I read Optic Nerve while traveling and though half of the reading was spent looking up references, I was still moved by the shape of it. Even found an art museum to go to, halfway through the read, so I could try to see like the narrator. I was less interested in acting out Normal People, but it drew me closer than Optic Nerve. Though I sometimes struggled with the characters, I flew through their story, anxious for them. Sally Rooney writes like a dancer’s gesture: rehearsed infinitely, effortless to watch.

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Lovia Gyarkye: I read Optic Nerve when life in New York was different: There was no social distancing or self-isolation, and cultural institutions, bars, and restaurants were open. In that version of the city, the novel—with its art historical musings and muted narrative fragments—struck a chord and the book impressed me with how it stitched these vignettes together unpretentiously. I liked it because it was smart. In this new version of the city, I admire the book for a different set of reasons: For its humor, its democratic approach to how we relate to art, and its often realistic (read: sometimes frustrating) portrayal of how we relate to ourselves (too seriously) and to each other (not seriously enough).

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Heather Cothran: The specific way Normal People describes the exact thoughts and feelings that so often accompany young love moved me more than Optic Nerve’s inventive blending of personal narrative and artist biography, and maybe I also think the Rooster winner should be more purely fiction? I want to be the type of person who votes for Optic Nerve, that person seems quite worldly and intellectual, but the reality is, Normal People is the novel I would be more excited to read again. My vote goes to Normal People.

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Catie Disabato: With Normal People, I had one of those addicted-style reading experiences, racing through my work and eschewing all other forms of entertainment for several days. I loved it until the end, when Marianne allowed circumstances to overwhelm her personal desires and agency. I rankled, and then great friend Aubrey Bellamy helped me understand that I uncomfortably identified with the way Marianne craved agency but sometimes found it easier to “sink into the fold” (Aubrey’s words). Sometimes, the best way to understand a book is to discuss it with others. I love the communal element of interpreting the emotional weight of a novel. I love mini book clubs via text, intimately connecting with someone via discussion of art. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t get into Optic Nerve. I wanted to understand the narrator better via her connection with creative work, but I felt that narrator trying to push me away every time she talked about an artist she loved. And so, duly pushed, away from her I went.

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Deena ElGenaidi: Optic Nerve and Normal People could not be more different in terms of style, characters, plot; but in this contest, Normal People wins by a landslide. Though Optic Nerve was beautifully written, it was oftentimes a slog to get through, the narration at parts slow and tedious. I sped through Normal People, though, compelled by the characters, Connell and Marianne, and how real and relatable they both felt. Perhaps it’s because, like Connell and Marianne, I too am a millennial, and I understand all the mind games we play with one another. But this story tugged at my emotions more than any other I’d read in a while, and for that reason, I have to choose Normal People.

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Debbie Millman: When I first found out that Optic Nerve—a fourth-seed book I was terrified to choose over The Water Dancer in the opening round (but ultimately did)—had made it to the finals I was stunned. I was suddenly proud of a decision I agonized over, and also a little bit self-satisfied in realizing that I had, indeed, made the right decision.

I started reading Normal People with a sense of trepidation: If I liked it more than Optic Nerve I would have to abandon both my pride and my smug sense of victory. Normal People is so good, I almost did. There are so many brilliant, beautiful lines in Normal People, it nearly seduces you into believing it is a brilliant, beautiful book. But about three quarters of the way through, I began to suspect that the beautiful lines wouldn’t result in the finality of a great, revolutionary book. And, ultimately, I was correct. While Normal People contains one of the most exquisite paragraphs I’ve read in a long time—

Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she’s aware of this now, while it’s happening. She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.

—in its totality Optic Nerve is more thoroughly, consistently sublime.

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Maret Orliss: The walls purposely (I think) created in Optic Nerve between the reader and the characters led to me rereading passages more frequently than I normally do with any book, and seeking real moments of connection with the art, the characters, the stories being told. But as often is the case with hard work, the reward of finding those moments stood out and crystalized and sparkled. With Normal People, even though I am far from the ages of the main characters, every glimpse of their joy, every moment of their self-doubt, each connection and aspect of those years when they discover who they are and who they aren’t, I identified with. I probably raced through it faster than I should have, without savoring it, but also immediately seeking out others who had read it to dissect it with them. Optic Nerve is to me beautiful, but distancing, while Normal People is a book that connects, and to me, connection is everything.

Normal People Optic Nerve
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Micco Caporale: I liked Normal People more than I expected. Stories of enduring straight love are not especially interesting to me, but the casual elegance of its language and subtle emotional observations made it worthwhile for me. That said, I found the narrative effect of the BDSM troubling. Marianne’s desire to pair physical punishment with sex is written as an expression of emotional damage (yawn), and we never experience moments where her interest in BDSM seems healthy. This plays into outdated ideas of where women’s desires could/should come from and suggests even consensual sexual violence is “bad.” Optic Nerve was a little harder for me to get into, but it took more creative risks, paired art history and criticism with fiction (a personal love of mine) and had, in my opinion, fewer intellectual faults.

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Jeannie Vanasco: If slicing the Rooster in two were an option, I’d say no—but only because I’m a vegetarian who supports animal rights. If, however, we could give two Roosters away, then yes, absolutely, I would call this a tie.

As a writer, I feel a slack-jawed awe for Optic Nerve’s ability to transform reflection into plot. My awe increased exponentially when I realized that the narrator would reveal few personal details about herself. She’s so obsessed with art that her descriptions of art and artists read like deeply personal interrogations of herself. It’s remarkable.

Normal People is more straightforward in its structure and prose style. Also, because Normal People is narrated in the third person, I didn’t expect to feel so immersed in the characters’ interior lives when I first read it back in 2018. (Yes, 2018. After reading Rooney’s debut novel in a single sitting, I immediately ordered a UK edition of Normal People because I didn’t want to wait for the US printing.) Reading Normal People again, I love it even more.

This was a tough call. They’re two very different books. As a reader and a writer (in that order), I choose Normal People.

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Barry Harbaugh: Write it on a padlock and find a good spot in the Trinity College Library’s Long Room: Marianne + Connell 4 Ever.

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Ratik Asokan: The virus has kept me away from museums, but even before that I had hardly seen any art for weeks. Politics—in this country, but also in India, where I am from—seemed so urgent, and so bad, that visiting MoMA or whatever felt somehow irresponsible; better to do some phone banking. Maybe that is why I felt a strange, almost furtive sense of relief when I opened Optic Nerve, which is a novel—really, a linked set of episodes and reflections in the autofiction vein—about an art historian. Not only is the book full of deeply felt, unpretentious descriptions of encounters with artworks (largely in Buenos Aires, where the narrator lives), it combines as a kind “Lives of the Artists” compendium, as the narrator weaves in stories of Rothko, Géricault, and (most memorably) Courbet, among others. It’s a book that makes you fall in love with painting all over again.

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Editor’s note: Jeanna Kadlec was unable to provide a written judgment for the championship, but finished the books and voted for Optic Nerve.

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Dessa: I read Optic Nerve with a smartphone in arm’s reach—had to look up words like “marmoreal” (marble-like) and check out at least a few of the dozens of paintings referenced in the text, so as to not suffocate under the weight of my own ignorance. A high-fiber novel. Normal People read more easily—milk chocolate, but the expensive co-op kind. A romance, a few reversals, a dusting of sex and violence. The sweet tooth won out.

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Jade Chang: Optic Nerve makes me want to write autofiction. Normal People makes me want to drink cocktails on a tennis court while dismissing a sexual conquest with a cruel, casual flick of the wrist. The latter would obviously be more enjoyable for myself and probably better for the world, yet, somehow, Optic Nerve is still the clear winner of this matchup. It aims constantly for brilliance and understanding, for a sense of the world lived large and I’m ready to go right back in and read it all over again.

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Jenny G. Zhang: It’s difficult to compare these two finalists because they differ in so many ways. Optic Nerve is eyebrow-raisingly unique in form, with prose so polished you can imagine author María Gainza—and translator Thomas Bunstead—picking each word, carefully, like a gem from a loose pile. Normal People, a novel fashionable with a certain type of well-to-do pop literati, boasts a sparer writing style, coupled with just a glimmer more of humanity. Neither left me rapturous; in the end, I suppose it came down to which one left a deeper indentation in my dumb old brain after two weeks of not thinking much about either book. Congrats, Normal People?

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Ethan Kuperberg: The way Optic Nerve made me wrestle with ideas about creativity and history and language are certainly worthy of the grand prize, but Normal People did something more personally impressive, something I try harder to avoid—it made me feel things. I read Normal People the way most people sleep, in that I laid down in bed, started reading the book, and then got out of the bed the next morning having read the book all night. I fell in love with these characters, I still miss them, and I really hope they’re doing OK.

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Helen Rosner: My feelings about Normal People have only intensified In the weeks since my original decision on the book: It’s fine. It’s full of beautifully wrought observations in the first two thirds, but then it’s so sloppy and shallow and smug in its final third, and so in love with one character (Connell) that the whole book warps to be a proof of his marvelousness. I know one of the core principles of the Tournament of Books is that it’s about the books, not the authors, but seriously: If Normal People had been written by a man, wouldn’t we all groan and sigh with how predictable it all is? It should have ended with the horrible dinner party in Italy—wouldn’t that have been a magnificently better novel? But I didn’t fall in love with Optic Nerve, either. (Maybe it’s me. Maybe I just don’t…like? novels? Anymore? This is distressing. I need to take stock.) But at least Optic Nerve allows the existence of a world outside its own narration, at least it actually does some big and messy thinking, instead of just informing us that its characters think big and messily, and hand-waving away what exactly those thoughts might be. I wanted it to be longer, I wanted to jump in and ask questions, I wanted to spend days and days inside the mind of this book. OK, maybe I did fall in love with it a little bit.

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From our match sponsor: This is a wrap on another fantastic Tournament of Books! You can still order any of the books from the Tournament from Quail Ridge Books with FREE shipping, and get a FREE Rooster sticker for your efforts. We really appreciate your support of community bookstores during this time, and we look forward to seeing you next year. Until then!

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: Of course it’s a dumb thing to be rooting for a novel in competition, John, but what isn’t silly is the feeling you get when you find so many people who have had the same experience with a novel as you have. Reading these encounters with Normal People, so similar to my own, is extremely gratifying.

And although I didn’t have the same experience, it was also fascinating to see so many stan for Optic Nerve, both in this judgment and throughout the tourney as it took down novel after novel after novel after novel. One of the great and most unexpected runs in Rooster history. Many people have fallen in love with this book, and I hope many more will discover it as a result of its success and exposure here.

John Warner: I was sitting here thinking that I’m often “disappointed” by the outcome of the Tournament of Books in that my pre-tourney favorite “never” makes it through to the top step of the podium, but then I went back through the archives and realized that this isn’t really true. More often than not, one of my two or three favorites from the field winds up in the winner’s circle, which is the case this year (though my number-one pick was Trust Exercise).

There’s also a little extra zip in the fact that Optic Nerve just didn’t do it for me, but I have to say the way our judging panelists who picked it describe its virtues makes me feel like I’m definitely missing out on something. One of the annual upsides of the Tournament is the opportunity to have a rethink about the books under discussion.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

All in all, I will always remember this as the tourney that unfurled during a global pandemic, but it is wonderful that the global pandemic had no impact on the fun. The ToB is virus-proof.

Kevin: Yet its appeal is contagious! I am immediately sorry for that.

Going back to our pre-tourney faves, you and I never got to talk about Dexter Palmer’s Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, but it was one of my favorite reads this year and came and went from the tourney so quickly that I fear few people even noticed it. I hope it ends up on a few bookstore shopping lists nonetheless.

As for the final, there are many interesting observations in these distilled, mini-reviews. Helen Rosner asks if “Normal People had been written by a man, wouldn’t we all groan and sigh with how predictable it all is?” I sat and thought about that comment for a long time. Is that true? I think she means that on the surface it’s another novel about young, heterosexual love, the kind that has been written over and over again back to a time when most novelists were men, and if certain male writers had written Normal People it no doubt would detail how the devoted love of a young woman saves an emotionally damaged man or something. But Normal People isn’t that kind of novel. I think if a man had written Normal People exactly the way it is, we’d all be rather startled, frankly. But it was an intriguing point to raise.

John: A number of judges talk about how they “sped” through Normal People, and how that experience was dispositive when it came to giving the book their vote. There’s nothing inherently superior about a book that induces you to read it quickly, but it is a sensation we’ve likely all experienced and it is thrilling. Optic Nerve literally cannot be read quickly and be enjoyed, at least I don’t think it’s that kind of book. It requires you to adjust to its pace, and for some that seemed to work perfectly.

Kevin: On that note, however, I am curious about the upcoming BBC/Hulu adaptation of Normal People, which clocks in at 12 episodes. Twelve hours has to be three or four times the number it took me to read the book. Certainly the TV series could expand scenes and spin off narratives that go beyond the scope of the novel (we’ve already talked about A Handmaid’s Tale), but it strikes me as ambitious for this kind of interior story. It would be like a 300-hour adaptation of Lord of the Rings. (That said, I will watch it. I’d probably also watch 300 hours of Lord of the Rings, or Tiger King, for that matter, especially while quarantining.)

Anyway, I also liked the way Debbie Millman talked us through her feelings, as a book she chose in the opening round—in what seemed like a huge upset at the time—made it all the way to the finals. Having made that early, courageous choice, she describes a kind of loyalty to Optic Nerve, and I think that is an emotion that would be familiar to a lot of judges in the ToB’s past.

Rosecrans Baldwin: On the subject of ToB judges, we want to take a moment here to remember a former ToB judge, the wonderful writer Tony Horwitz, who died last year at age 60 from a sudden cardiac arrest while he was on book tour.

I got to meet Tony for the first time in the authors’ area at a book fair about seven years ago. I think this was in Nashville. I was promoting a book, super naive, so clumsy. I didn’t know anybody and felt totally out of place. Tony was palling around with his friend Jack Hitt, another great writer, and for no good reason—we’d never met before—Tony couldn’t have been nicer to me or more outgoing. He came to one of my readings. He showed me around, he was funny, he was charming. I don’t remember much else from that book fair, except for learning that Tony Horwitz, whom I’d admired ever since I first read Confederates in the Attic, was in real life one of the sweetest guys in the world. To this day, at public events, I think of him, how he carried himself, and literally tell myself in my head, try to be more like Tony Horwitz. I barely knew him and I miss him a lot.

Kevin: Rosecrans, I get a shiver reading that tribute. Either John or I could have written a virtually identical paragraph. We met Tony at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville in 2005. It was one of the first events promoting my debut novel. John was teaching at Virginia Tech and drove over to provide ground support. (The emotional boost of a familiar face at your book signing cannot be overstated.) One night John and I attended an all-authors reception at the UVA president’s house. We didn’t know anybody and were mostly amusing ourselves with overheard whispers that Sen. John Warner was in attendance, secretly aware that this rumor must have been started by the person who filled out John’s nametag. Somehow Tony got stuck talking to us in a corner and didn’t leave for an hour. I was a little awestruck (also a huge Confederates in the Attic fan here) but he was engaging and curious and kind and, despite his Pulitzer, talked to both of us as if we were his writer equals. Word of his passing saddened me deeply. A wonderful writer and a wonderful man.

John: A mensch in every sense of the word.

Rosecrans: As for today’s winning novel, we reached out to Sally Rooney and she has (wisely) passed on receiving a live rooster for her prize. Instead, TMN will make a donation in Normal People’s name to 826 National.

Kevin: This is the part where we always thank the Commentariat, and we always mean it from the heart. This dumb exercise was given life when you became engaged with it. You have made  the Rooster a real boy, and we are forever grateful. But this year, in this time, your support and engagement and friendship have meant more to us than ever. Which is why we are especially pleased that Andrew and Rosecrans have some exciting, and perhaps anticipated, news.

John: Yes to everything about the Commentariat, which has become a year-round community of sorts, and which really is going to be quite excited about this news.

Andrew Womack: Can you believe this is actually happening?

Rosecrans: I cannot!

Andrew: Back in 2005, we held the first Tournament of Books, and have done so every year since. Now, with today’s result, we have 16 Rooster winners—enough cluckers to fill a bracket unto themselves. Which is exactly what we’ve done.

It’s called the Super Rooster, and it’s coming this October.

Rosecrans: Here’s how it works. All our previous Rooster-winning novels will square off against each other in a bracket—just like a standard Tournament of Books—with past Tournament judges making the call for each match.

Roosterheads already know the books in play, but in case you want a reminder, those titles are:

We’ll have more details soon, so make sure you sign up for the Rooster newsletter to stay in the know.

Andrew: But before the Super Rooster in the fall, we’re returning this summer with another edition of Camp ToB. For that, we’d love your recommendations for novels to consider. Please use the form below to drop in your choices by Sunday, April 5 at midnight ET. Based on your recommendations, we’ll announce in the next few weeks which books will be in play. And remember: The novel that wins at Camp ToB earns an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books—the winner of which enters the bracket for Super Rooster II in 2035.

Rosecrans: Oh good lord.

Rosecrans: Before we go, we have a lot of people to thank. In addition to all our judges, we want to thank John and Kevin for their terrific commentary, as well as all of the Reader Judge finalists who joined us in the booth this year: Melanie Greene, Kati Stevens, Ron Block, Joe Ferrentino, Stuart Shiffman, Vivian Wagner, Maggie Schneider, and Zelda Olentia. Major thanks also to Meave Gallagher for working nonstop behind the scenes as our community moderator.

Andrew: And we can’t thank Field Notes enough for once again presenting this year’s Tournament. On your way out the exits, make sure you pick up a 2020 Field Notes ToB Memo Book, 100 percent of the proceeds of which go to 826 National. Also check out their new “Vignette” books, which include die-cut covers so you can customize your book in just about any way you can dream up. If you’re looking for a fun project to fill an afternoon, those new books are a great way to do it.

Also, a huge thanks to Quail Ridge Books for sponsoring this year’s newsletter and so many of the matches. We sent them a stack of Rooster stickers before the Tournament started, and they’ll add one to your order if you purchase any of the Tournament books through them.

Rosecrans: Now it’s time to announce the winners of our Contest of the Commentariat. Yesterday, we asked you to guess the outcome of today’s match. After collecting all of the correct predictions, and randomly selecting three winners, we’re pleased to say Lee Razer, Isaac, and Jennifer will be the proud recipients of year-long subscriptions from Field Notes, as well as copies of Kevin Guilfoile’s A Drive Into the Gap and John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice. Winners, please send your mailing information to to claim your prizes.

Andrew: Before we go, we want to give special thanks to all our Sustaining Members and everyone who’s made a donation to keep TMN and the Tournament of Books going. Three years ago, we began asking for your help. At the time, the future of the Tournament really was in doubt, and it’s absolutely a fact that your support erased that doubt, and has made the ToB possible ever since, including Camp ToB—and now, the Super Rooster.

Please, if you haven’t already, consider becoming a Sustaining Member. Your generosity is what makes all this possible. Thank you!


2020 Tournament of Books Merch

New 2020 Tournament of Books merch is now available at the TMN Store. As a reminder, Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off everything in our store. To find out why we’re asking for your support and how you can become a Sustaining Member, please visit our Membership page. Thank you.


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