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 »
Shining at the Bottom of the Seaby STEPHEN MARCHE
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby JUNOT DÍAZ
JOHN: The main thing I learned from Ted Genoways’s comment on this matchup is that Stephen Marche needs to fire his publicist and hire whomever is on the job for Roberto Bolaño. Despite having passed away almost five years ago, Bolaño is the it author of the Tournament with The Savage Detectives previously looming over Mark Sarvas’s judgment in the second round and now Nazi Literature in the Americas playing a role in tipping the balance for Junot Díaz, who, like Joshua Ferris, is beginning to look unstoppable.
But back to Stephen Marche. When the editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review and the authors of the definitive take on the Bush presidency as done in colored pencil are not aware of your work, and you don’t even have a Wikipedia page, someone needs to get on the stick and get the word out. If a tree falls in the forest and then someone takes the tree and makes paper out of it that gets printed in a book and no one is aware of the book, did anyone hear the tree fall?
Even in defeat, Marche garners some serious praise from Genoways. Being called Nabokovian is like crack to many literary authors, sort of the inverse of a standup comedian being called, Yakov Smirnovian. Unfortunately, unless he’s resurrected in the Zombie Round, Marche won’t make it to the finals and receive the same kind of career boost as a previously obscure author who was lifted to prominence by his ToB victory (Cormac McCarthy); but thus far, he gets the award for author most helped by the Tournament.
KEVIN: We’ve received some mail about last round’s match between Junot Díaz and Laura Lippman. More than one person has suggested that it was unfair to assign that duel to Elizabeth McCracken, who teaches Díaz in her class. Obviously, the letter writers said, Lippman never had a chance, and they’re right.
When I randomly assigned the pairings to judges, I wasn’t aware of their particular biases. But if I had known Elizabeth was an admirer of Díaz, and deliberately did not give her that pairing because of it, that would have been a kind of bias as well (I loved What the Dead Know and haven’t read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). And I probably would have had to do a lot of shuffling in this group to find one who wasn’t predisposed to Junot Díaz.
To be clear, the point of the Rooster is not to eliminate bias from book awards. If we’re doing anything (and I’m not sure we are), it’s showing how these biases are not only epidemic, they are unavoidable. Appreciation of literature is all about subjective bias. But when most book awards are announced, you don’t have any idea what standards are being applied or what books are taught in what classes by the individuals forging the crown. The only thing we do differently is tell you who these people are.
The only reason any of us is even aware that Elizabeth teaches Díaz is that she told us, and I think that’s a step forward. That doesn’t help Laura Lippman, I know, but she got a Quill Award this year. And when you get one of those, they hand you a live chicken on TV.