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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From the Booth

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


The Savage Detectives


KEVIN: I love that Andrew even bothers to ask, “You know that part at the end of Revenge of the Nerds…?” I suspect that anyone following a competition called the “Tournament of Books” pretty much knows every frame of that movie, which is why one could almost imagine circumstances in which The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was as cynically conceived as a book titled The Da Vinci Clone. Picture Junot Díaz sitting at his desk, wondering what sort of character he should create: “Let’s see, what should I write about? Well, who reads literary fiction? I’ve got it! Nerds!”

And now the finals are set. I hesitate to make too much of the significance of the match-up. Remainder certainly had its share of critical acclaim and quite a lot of reader support (not for nothing did TMN readers put it in the Zombie Round), so it didn’t come from nowhere, exactly. Still its journey to the finals was improbable, having been left for dead in round two when Mark Liberman promoted The Shadow Catcher instead. (If you’re tired of our commentary, you can read ToB judge Helen Dewitt’s take on that decision at her blog.)

The Rooster has something of a history of these unexpected match-ups in the late rounds. John, you mentioned it earlier with reference to Remainder, but I note that this is the third time in four years that a paperback original has made it to the finals (previously there has been Cloud Atlas, which defeated The Plot Against America; and Home Land, which lost to The Accidental).

I’m not sure if the publishing industry will take notice, or even what they would do with that information even if they did. As a focus-group facilitator in a former life, what conclusions might you draw from that information?

JOHN: As a former focus-group facilitator I would pause, look thoughtful, then offer up some reasonable inference based on the available evidence that is indisputably true, but also, kind of useless and 85-percent bullshit:

“I think what this shows is that people are willing to take a chance on a book that costs $12.”


“It’s not the size of the book in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the book.”


“Next time, I think we should skip the sushi in the viewing room.”

Seriously, though, who knows? I do think that it’s relatively easy to make a recommendation to a friend for something that’s going to only put them out $10 to $12, as opposed to $25 or $30. For $10 I’ll try just about anything, including street-vendor sushi.

(But I’d never feed it to clients again.)

One of the troubles with the book industry, or any industry for that matter, is consistently looking backwards for what’s going to work in the future. I think a lot of people believe that releasing more paperback originals, particularly for not-yet-established authors, might be a good strategy, but it’s entirely possible that the cost and the format has nothing to do with the success of these particular books and that the publishers actually left tons of money on the table by not first releasing higher-margin hardcovers.

That’s the hard part. With all the variables, it’s impossible to say which one is determinative. The actress Katherine Heigl is reportedly looking to get out of her Grey’s Anatomy contract so she can capitalize on the big-dollar offers she’s getting for movies based on the success of 27 Dresses and Knocked Up. Now, I think she’s a perfectly serviceable Hollywood actress, but you’d be hard-pressed to make a case that she is the reason those movies succeeded. When she was coming off the made-for-TV prequel Romy and Michelle: In the Beginning (picking up for Lisa Kudrow in the role of Romy), I’m going to say that Katherine Heigl had a hard time finding work. Now, she’s apparently a bankable actress. Now, she’s getting offered many millions of dollars to star in movies. To me, this seems like the peak of irrationality, but if one of those movies hits, the studio heads that made the call will be hailed as geniuses.

This is why the book industry needs to keep experimenting, looking forward, not back. MacAdam Cage reports having good success simultaneously publishing books in hardcover and paperback. Other publishers are doing ultra-expensive limited-run titles, like a 20-pound book about Pelé signed by all the living members of the 1970 Brazilian World Cup team that runs $20,000. I hear Anne Rice is printing her next book in her own blood and Stephen King is looking to print his next book on human flesh.

Me, for my next project, I’m offering it as a limited-edition printing of one copy, price $100,000. (I’m throwing in a kidney with purchase.)

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

The Standings


• Round One •

Tree of Smoke v. Ovenman
judged by Tobias Seamon

The Savage Detectives v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Elizabeth Kiem

Then We Came to the End v. Petropolis
judged by Anthony Doerr

You Don’t Love Me Yet v. New England White
judged by Jessica Francis Kane

Run v. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
judged by Kate Schlegel

What the Dead Know v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Elizabeth McCracken

On Chesil Beach v. Remainder
judged by Ze Frank

The Shadow Catcher v. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
judged by Helen DeWitt

• Round Two •

Tree of Smoke v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Mark Sarvas

Then We Came to the End v. You Don’t Love Me Yet
judged by Maud Newton

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Ted Genoways

Remainder v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Mark Liberman


Tree of Smoke v. Then We Came to the End
judged by Gary Shteyngart

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Nick Hornby


Then We Came to the End v. Remainder
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Savage Detectives
judged by Andrew Womack


Remainder v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
All Judges + Jennifer Szalai