The Morning News

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 »

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The 2007 Tournament of Books is over. To view this year's Tournament, go here.


From the Booth

One Good Turn


The Lay of the Land


GUILFOILE: One of the questions I get most often at book signings is whether my characters “have minds of their own.” Maud points out that both Nabokov and Ford were dismissive of the idea, but I think that’s largely because of the way the question is usually asked.

Despite what some have suggested, I don’t think many writers actually forget that they control the destiny of their characters. What frequently happens, however, is you have a story you want to tell and you have characters you plan to plug into that story, but the characters don’t arrive in your head fully-formed. You might know their sex and where they live and what they do and maybe what their damage is, but you don’t really get to know them until you actually start writing. And that’s when you sometimes discover that these characters wouldn’t actually do some of things you had planned for them.

Maud does a nice job of summarizing the pitfalls that lie ahead for the writer at that point. You can make the mistake of manipulating them into doing your initial bidding. Or you can have your characters fall victim to inertia which, perhaps in Ford’s defense, is what most of us do in real life when we discover that we aren’t up to the plans we once had for ourselves.

Inertia doesn’t always make for good reading, though.

WARNER: Because of the combination of her solid track record (when it comes to me enjoying books she has recommended) and the sharpness and specificity of her criticism of The Lay of the Land, Judge Newton almost convinced me that I didn’t actually like the book.

Just almost, though. She manages to paint Frank Bascombe as a bit (or more than a bit) of an old creep, but as she notes, these observations really are part of the background, and Frank is more than the sum of his prejudices. She declares him neither sympathetic nor interesting, and indeed, I don’t see Bascombe as a likeable, or even sympathetic character, but for whatever reason I empathize with him and indeed find him deeply interesting. At some level I must find inertia interesting. (This probably doesn’t speak well of me.)

The Lay of the Land is the least accomplished of the three Bascombe books. For me, The Sportswriter went to the Final Four, and Independence Day won the title. The Lay of the Land may only make it to my Sweet Sixteen, but that’s still a pretty good season.

Dude, listen to us. We’re supposed to be professional wise-crackers here and we’re getting all existential and shit. You’d think we were a couple of dudes approaching middle age or something.

GUILFOILE: Seriously. Any day now I’m probably going to tell my wife that we have to eat dinner at 4:30 so we’ll be done before Prairie Home Companion.

« Return to the judge’s decision for this match.

The Standings


• Round One •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. Absurdistan
judged by Brady Udall

The Echo Maker v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Marcus Sakey

Firmin v. Brookland
judged by Sarah Hepola

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo v. The Road
judged by Maria Schneider

Arthur and George v. One Good Turn
judged by Kate Schlegel

The Lay of the Land v. English, August
judged by Colin Meloy

Alentejo Blue v. Apex Hides the Hurt
judged by Dan Chaon

Against the Day v. Pride of Baghdad
judged by Anthony Doerr

• Round Two •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Jessa Crispin

Firmin v. The Road
judged by Mark Sarvas

One Good Turn v. The Lay of the Land
judged by Maud Newton

Alentejo Blue v. Against the Day
judged by Sam Lipsyte


Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Road
judged by Elizabeth Gaffney

One Good Turn v. Against the Day
judged by Sasha Frere-Jones


The Road v. Against the Day
judged by Andrew Womack

One Good Turn v. Absurdistan
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin


The Road v. Absurdistan
All Judges + Jessica Francis Kane