The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »
Half of a Yellow Sunby CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
Absurdistanby GARY SHTEYNGART
WARNER: A real pleasure to be back in the virtual booth for the 3rd Annual Tournament of Books. I’ve got my rooster-crest-emblazoned sport coat on and I’m looking forward to seeing which one of our contestants makes a drunken pass at Suzy Kolber on the sidelines.
I hit the books hard this year, effectively doubling my preparation by actually having read two of the titles among this year’s 16 finalists (The Lay of the Land and One Good Turn), as opposed to one last year (runner-up Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land). However, if Tony Kornheiser can join the Monday Night Football booth and George W. Bush can be president, actual experience with what you’re talking about seems unnecessary.
Our first matchup features a couple of up-and-comers whose names I have to double-check every time I type them, which is annoying, but not as annoying as judge Brady Udall found Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. One thing I appreciate in judge Udall’s write-up of both books is not only a thumbnail sketch of the plot, but a description of each book’s tone and general approach to storytelling, which gives me a sense for which book I might like, despite having read neither. It’s like this Udall person is a writer, or something like that.
Because he does this, I can confidently declare that Udall has made the wrong call. Chimamanda Achidie’s Half of a Yellow Sun sounds like homework (interesting homework, but still homework). The Russian Debutante’s Handbook sounds like dessert.
GUILFOILE: You know a year ago in this space you and I were discussing Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land and one of us said this:
Except for not shooting your friends on a hunting trip, I don’t think there’s anything harder than writing a successful comic novel.
Then I noticed this passage in Brady Udall’s review:
I’ve long been of the opinion that the comic novel is the most difficult literary form
Has Udall really long been of the opinion or is he ripping us off? I believe the Tournament of Books has its first plagiarist. Actually it’s less like plagiarism and more like three writers sharing a widely held belief, but this is America, dammit! I want to be aggrieved.
Still, that’s pretty weak. Let me try it again.
In December of 1999, I wrote a piece for the New Republic in which I suggested that since the millennium would really begin on January 1, 2001, not January 1, 2000, we should change its popular shorthand from Y2K to the Roman 2MI. On New Year’s Eve, two weeks after that article hit newsstands, Al Franken went on the air with Peter Jennings and did the exact same bit, lifted right from the page. He had even made up 2MI t-shirts and presented them to an amused Jennings. Have I mentioned this publicly before? No, because I think it’s entirely possible that two intelligent people could have come up with the same lame comedy bit independently, even if Al Franken has seven times been named, Person most likely to subscribe to the New Republic. Do I mention it now just as Franken begins his bid for the United States Senate because he might be able to throw some sweet perks my way (in the form of inaugural ball tickets and universal health care) in order to shut me up and avoid a Joe Biden-like plagiarism scandal right out of the gate. Yes. Yes I do.
Call me, Al. All these years later, I’m suddenly aggrieved.