The Judges

Our Super Rooster Panel

Rumaan Alam (ToB 2018) is the author of the novels Rich and Pretty, That Kind of Mother, and Leave the World Behind. Why come back for the Super Rooster? “To me the ToB is an irreverent riposte to a culture too invested in prizes and competition in art, but it’s not a joke—it takes criticism and argument seriously, and it’s reliably a pleasure to watch the Tournament unfold. Judging is one of the best assignments I’ve ever had!”

Will Chancellor (ToB 2017) wrote A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall and is currently working on an alternate history of the Soviet space program (The Meaning of Certain Dreams). He recently joined The Brooklyn Rail as fiction co-editor and is publishing a monograph on Brazilian artist Lucas Arruda (Deserto-Modelo) in late October. Why return for the Super Rooster? “High school policy debate warped my perceptions of the world. I grew up thinking that there was nothing particularly strange about people attacking stacks of library books for six-hour stretches every day and then arguing in rounds about which paradigm best made sense of the world presented. The ToB itself reminds me of the ToC (Tournament of Champions) in debate. And the Commentariat reminds me of my fast-talking brethren. But above all else, it’s the voluntary rigor of the Rooster watcher that makes me smile. There’s something heroic about total commitment to the admittedly arbitrary.”

Nicole Chung (ToB 2017) is the author of All You Can Ever Know and the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine. Thoughts on returning? “I love the ToB, as anyone should if they are into books and strong but respectful disagreement. I shudder at the thought of writing a real book review, I just could never—thank god for this forum, where I can assert my highly subjective non-professional opinions about things I’ve read for an intimidatingly clever audience.”

Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor of the magazines and Spolia. She is the author of The Dead Ladies Project, published by the University of Chicago Press, The Creative Tarot, published by Touchstone, and Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. She currently divides her time between Baltimore and Berlin.

Roxane Gay (ToB 2014) is a writer. She splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, for love. Why return to the Tournament? “I am coming back as a Rooster judge because I have a fondness for goodhearted competition. I get to read interesting books and share my opinions and read the opinions of so many smart people that always challenge me in the best ways.”

Myriam Gurba (ToB 2019) is a Mexican American writer, storyteller, and visual artist from Santa Maria, Calif. She is the author of three books: Mean, Painting Their Portraits in Winter: Stories, and Dahlia Season: Stories and a Novella.

Sarah Hepola (ToB 2007, 2018 Rooster Nonfiction Pop-up) is the author of the bestselling memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. She is currently working on a second memoir, called Unattached. Why she’s judging the ToB again: “It’s the only sports tournament I understand.”

Carolyn Kellogg (ToB 2010) is a critic, writer, and editor with opinions. A former Books editor of the Los Angeles Times who was a judge of the National Book Award in nonfiction in 2019, her work has been published widely. She can be found online at Why return to the ToB? “I’m returning to the Rooster because it was SO WRONG in 2010 when Andrew WK rejected the winner I’d advanced—Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women—because he liked Wolf Hall’s cover better. Also, he’s wrong: The Book of Night Women has a better cover.”

Victor LaValle (ToB 2015, 2017 Rooster Summer Reading Challenge) is the author of seven works of fiction and one comic book. His most recent novel is The Changeling. Why the ToB again? “I’m back as a judge because I’ve always remembered the Rooster fondly. The bloodsport! The thoughtful judges’ commentary. And, maybe most of all, the chain of conversation in the comments, the readers chatting and joking and arguing. It’s a fun neighborhood bar, but with books instead of beers. And despite that, I still like being there.”

Chelsea Leu (ToB 2019) is books editor at The Rumpus, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, WIRED, The Believer, Bookforum, Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, and others. Why is she back for the Super Rooster? “I’m participating in the Tournament of Books again because it’s one of the few opportunities I’ve found where I can write about books with as much raucous delight as I derive from reading them.”

D.T. Max (ToB 2013) is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace and The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery.

Helen Rosner (ToB 2020) is the New Yorker’s roving food correspondent.

Nozlee Samadzadeh (ToB producer 2010–2018) is a senior software engineer at the New York Times. What made her return to the Rooster? “Working on the Rooster for so long fundamentally changed the way I think about contemporary fiction, both via our judges tasked with the mind-bending job of inventing a rubric for comparing two books that share nothing but a publication year, but also via the all-seeing intensity of the Commentariat. I honestly can’t freaking believe that I get to step in as a judge this time after fulfilling every other possible Rooster role, and on such a deep bench! Sorry for the sports metaphor.

Choire Sicha (ToB 2005, 2006, 2016) is the editor for the Styles desk of the New York Times.

Merritt Tierce (ToB 2018) is the author of the novel Love Me Back, and a recipient of a 2019 Whiting Foundation award. A National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” author and Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award winner, she wrote for the last two seasons of the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. She is currently working on various film and television projects and lives in Los Angeles. Why return to the Rooster? “Because I discovered a book I loved the first time I judged, and I don’t think I would have read that book otherwise. So I’m both hoping for a repeat and repaying a debt of gratitude!”

Jess Zimmerman (ToB 2016) is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature. Her essays and opinion writing have appeared in the Guardian, the New Republic, Slate, Hazlitt, Catapult, and others. She has also published fiction in Paper Darts, Catapult, and Motherboard. Her book Women and Other Monsters, on feminism and mythological creatures, is forthcoming in March 2021. Why come back for the Super Rooster? “I love taking part in the ToB because it shows all the gears at work underneath our ideas about literary quality. The whole idea of a championship for ‘best book’ is obviously absurd—reading preferences are not only deeply personal but also, and less benignly, influenced by a whole host of predispositions and biases! But that’s the whole point of the ToB, and the whole fun. The ToB gamely keeps up the pretense of judging literary quality, but because we’re all writing these long justifications of our picks and then arguing over them endlessly, you see the operations of personal experience and taste with perfect clarity. The National Book Critics Circle could learn a thing or two.”

Our Commentators

TMN co-founder Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of three books, including his latest novel The Last Kid Left (NPR’s Best Books of the Year). His nonfiction appears in a variety of magazines, mostly GQ. His next book, a work of creative nonfiction about Los Angeles County, is forthcoming from MCD x Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two novels, Cast of Shadows and The Thousand, that have been translated into more than 20 languages. His latest book, a memoir, is A Drive Into the Gap. He is also co-screenwriter of the feature film Chasing the Blues.

John Warner is the author most recently of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. He writes weekly for the Chicago Tribune on books and reading and lives in the Charleston, SC, area.

TMN co-founder Andrew Womack is always working on the next installment of his Albums of the Year series.