Toni Morrison becomes the first triple-crown winner in the history of the tournament: Pultizer, Nobel, Rooster. Congratulations on a well-earned victory and congratulations to you, Kevin, for making the correct prognostication.
Lots of the judges liked both books, but in each case a clear preference emerged. Unlike some of the early rounds, I don’t believe anyone expressed dislike or ambivalence about the choice at hand, which suggests there maybe is something to our system.
Monica Ali was left cold by A Mercy,
while Brockman is baffled by the appeal of City of Refuge
. John Hodgman voted A Mercy
through in round two, but switched his allegiance to City of Refuge
here. David Rees seems to view A Mercy
as being superior, but is so charged up by the social engagement of City of Refuge
that he tilted toward Piazza’s effort.
Tony Doerr uses the words that could probably stand in for all the other comments, calling A Mercy
my kind of book.
Most of my personal kinds of books got eliminated in the first round, and that still stings, so to all the disappointed fans of 2666
or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
, or any of the other titles that fell by the wayside, I say I feel your pain.
It’s hard to believe we’ve done five years of this. Back when the tournament started, Barack Obama had just started his term as a United States senator and the no. 1 song was by Kelly Clarkson. Today, Obama is president and the no. 1 song is by
I see the ToB production crew breaking down the set, switching off the lights, and coiling the cables, so it’s time for me to turn in my yearly soapbox, but before my mic goes silent, two final things.
Looking five years into the future, I think present-day developments on the digital distribution/e-book front mean we’ll be looking at a very different landscape. The barriers to entering publishing are collapsing and in five years I don’t think we’ll have one imprint with five of the final 16 as we do this year with Knopf. As an example, I’d like to see some ambitious person or persons start an imprint dedicated to baggy maximalist books like 2666
(we’ll call it Doorstop Press), so people who desire that experience can find it consistently, rather than waiting for the occasional tome to make its way through the traditional publishing mill.
Let a thousand flowers bloomonly free market, rather than commie-style.
The digital/print divide was reinforced for me this weekend after reading the New York Times Sunday Book Review
online. The lead review
was of Wells Tower’s new short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
. It’s a rave and reinforced many of the great things I’ve been reading elsewhere, as well as my own impressions of Mr. Tower’s writing, having read his fiction in McSweeney’s
and his nonfiction in Harper’s
. It has become, officially, a book I want.
In the same edition there is a review
of another new collection of stories, Caitlin Macy’s Spoiled
. Another positive review, though the description doesn’t make the book sound as immediately appealing to me specifically as Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
Still, it became, officially, a book I’d like to check out.
This was Saturday, early, maybe eight o’clock. It was raining, unseasonably cool. I’d finished digesting the paper and was working on my oatmeal and I figured I’d see what’s what with these two new story collections. With the weather and the early hour, I wasn’t going to go anywhere, so I turned to the wife’s Kindle and found that only Macy’s book has a Kindle edition. I’d downloaded the first story in seconds, finished it in 15 minutes, and ordered the rest of the book right then and there. Meanwhile, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
remains in my unbought, books I want category, potentially forever since I’m constantly coming across books I want. Wells Tower and his publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux would’ve had a sale. Now, who knows? It may just get buried under the avalanche of new books.
Not only should anyone with a short story collection be giving away at least one sample story for free to anyone who’d like to read it, a clever publisher one of these days will allow readers to order individual stories using the iPod singles model. The really clever publisher will figure out how to do this with their own online store where you can mix and match efforts by their different authors for a sort of personal Now That’s What I Call Writing
Come on FSG, get with the program. The future is nowor more accurately it was yesterday, which means you’re behind the curve.
Obviously, these two contenders were pretty safe choicesif somebody you didn’t know very well asked you to recommend a novel, I think you could put either A Mercy
or City of Refuge
in her hands and not worry about scandalizing her book clubbut they are both outstanding books. It’s happened before that neither of the two finalists seemed to be any of the judges’ favorite from the tourney, but rather they were the books about which most of the judges could agree. And as you say, most of the judges really enjoyed both novels
. Books that people are passionate about but which are also divisive are probably not going to make it through the gauntlet. That’s generally true of all awards, I think. Most books win awards through some sort of secret, back-room compromise.
In the comments one reader expresses disgust that two such safe bets made it to the Finals. I’m glad that anybody cares at all one way or the other, but of course no book award is about validating any individual’s aesthetic. Quite the opposite, I would argue. At least with the ToB you also get to see great passion for other booksbooks that probably could never get nine votes out of 17in the judges’ decisions, in our commentary, and especially in the comments. The addition of TMN readers to the mix made this the most entertaining ToB of the first five for me. Even though I didn’t really enjoy 2666
, for instance, I enjoyed reading about other people’s reactions to it and soon I was very glad I had
read it to put those reactions in context. When Michael Payne said Bolaño sets me on fire with ambition and wanderlust
I (surprisingly) knew that sensation and so I understood his relationship to the book, even though it wasn’t the same as mine.
And as long as I’m at it, let me make a case for the safe bet. Yesterday Maud Newton Twittered
a story about a high school debate
in Seattle pitting Harry Potter
vs. the Twilight
books. Writer (and professor) Alexander Chee reported back, In my classes, Harry Potter
is the common text for their generation. They have no other book in common.
I don’t know if that’s an exaggeration (do college-bound high-schoolers not read Mockingbird
anymore? Animal Farm
? Lord of the Flies
? A Separate Peace
?), but aren’t we better off if we have a common vocabulary of fiction and if that vocabulary evolves? I’m not trying to get into a canon debate, and I’m certainly not suggesting everyone should read all the same books, or that writers should necessarily aim for the center of the board as that disgruntled commenter puts it. But it’s possible that what the final round of the Tournament of Books does best is locate
the center of the board, at least for a group of pretty well-read individuals, and if you want to claim that A Mercy
and City of Refuge
are it, I say our culture would be about 1,000% percent more literate if one percent of the people had read either one of them.
To Mr. Chee’s point, people don’t read books anymore
. Smart people, dumb people. Educated people, uneducated people. Forget Harry Potter
, most people don’t read fiction for pleasure, at all
. And so to bunch your Underoos because a goofball internet award didn’t come up with a more cutting-edge author to give its chicken to is a little like complaining that the solution to today’s Sudoku doesn’t require calculus.
That commenter who remarked on us hitting the center of the board went on to say that it also makes it look like a dreadful year for publishing. There is a tendencyone I’m occasionally guilty of myselffor passionate readers to believe that in order for reading and literature to be saved, we need to push or pull it in a certain direction. If only books were more like I think they should be, then we’ll all be fine,
But I think the truth is something closer to what your Harry Potter
anecdote illustrates. We need reading to spread in any direction it can go. Sometimes I feel like we’re engaging in an intramural turf battle over very little turf. First, let’s grab a little more grass before we decide whose is greenest.
This past semester for one of my courses my students have been engaged in projects where they’re asked to do a case study of a single book in an effort to try to explain how and why certain books became successful. It’s a vehicle to induce them to learn as much about publishing in as short a time as possible. The books they chose to study range from Harry Potter
to Geek Love
and Jesus’ Son
. Even going into the semester I knew it was a mostly fruitless enterprise since we all believe that no one knows the magic formula to a book’s success, but I spent most of today reading through drafts of these case studies and one theme stands out again and again, and that is that at some point, each book found a passionate advocate and it’s that passion that gave the book a life with audiences.
For example, the phenomenon of Harry Potter
in America has been largely traced to NPR host Margot Adler, who received an advance copy and became a one-woman evangelist for the work.
The Lovely Bones
benefited from a significant PR push, but its tipping point was Anna Quindlen telling Katie Couric and her Today Show
audience that if they read one book that year, it should be that one.
has been sustained through the years by a passionate following among creative writing students. Geek Love
owes its existence to one man, Knopf chairman Sonny Mehta. Two generations of readers looking for something that’s going to shake them up have kept it alive through multiple reissues.
If the ToB does nothing else, it demonstrates the passion out there for books. Now we just need to spread the word, people.
I can see the giant hook making its way toward me to yank me from the stage, but before it grabs me, let me say thanks to the judges, thanks to the commentators, thanks to Andrew and Rosecrans, thanks to Powell’s, and thanks once again to you, my friend. To quote Ms. Clarkson, my life would suck without you. It was a really pleasure to talk books with all of you. Let’s do it again next year.
Very well said.
I really wish I could be that passionate advocate for The Dart League King
, but I won’t be until either they give me a radio hosting gig or more than 59 people are following me on Twitter.
If even some of your students are actually reading Jesus’ Son
, that’s the best news I’ve heard in six months. Word of that alone would send the Dow up 300 points today, if the Dow were pegged to awesome short stories about heroin.
And if I might say one last thing about the book I didn’t like but can’t shut up about, the undisputed tournament MVP (and if I may also speak in defense of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux): The American hardcover and softcover editions of 2666
. I can’t imagine the experience of that book being replicated on a Kindle. I have the three-volume paperback edition and I’m not only never getting rid of it, I’m thinking about buying the hardcover as well just so I can look at it all day.
Finally, I also want to thank all the same people you just didthe judges, the readers, the bloggers, all the commenters, everyone at TMN (especially Liz Entman for her tireless copy editing, Matt Robison for Facebooking and making sure Junot Díaz got a crazy rooster shirt, and Llewellyn Hinkes for coding a ToB site as efficient as Cormac McCarthy’s prose), the authors, the publishers (who really do care about good books)you, of course, you big lugand all the folks at Powell’s (who also care about good books). It was once again great fun and I seriously can’t wait to be called an idiot next year.