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The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

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John: In the semi-final round where City of Refuge got past 2666, one of our commenters was not pleased, taking a shot at City of Refuge and hitting The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks with some shrapnel in the process:
For all those who were so struck by CofR’s subject matter, man oh man you people need to, if not get out more, READ more. With so much incredible writing out there about sides of the human condition undreamt of in works such as The Disreputable History of Frankie Whosie-Whatsits (gah!), there is NO excuse for falling for a mediocre piece of not-even-journalism because it’s focuses on an under-served population of tragedy victims.

Bah, I say, BAH.
As a guy who has offered up praise for both the books mentioned, I gotta say, that stings a little. We’re not looking at a “different strokes for different folks” type of argument here. This is cutting right to the core, an accusation of, if not stupidity, then at the least ignorance (willful or otherwise).

What most interests me is this part, “With so much incredible writing out there about sides of the human condition undreamt of in works such as….”

This settled in my craw near Anthony Doerr’s first-round comment on Disreputable History where he said, “Nothing truly fundamental gets shaken up here,” and is now joined by Rosecrans Baldwin’s take on the book, “Nothing seemed to matter very much to the characters…”

As I hope my first-round comment made clear I thought that Disreputable History was great, and over time, my esteem for the book has only grown. Contra Doerr, in my mind, the novel is concerned with the most fundamental of all elements, love. E. Lockhart makes Frankie’s foundational dilemma clear very early on in the book, on page seven no less, “She had never been in love.”

I think it’s easy with our adult perspective to dismiss or discount this kind of thing. After all, how “meaningful” is it really to read the story of a 15-year-old girl’s first attempts at love? As Doerr notes in a world of “global violence” and “child slavery,” the romantic tribulations of a intelligent, financially secure, recently-blossomed teenage girl seem truly trivial.

We’re beyond this now. When I became a man, I put away childish things, and all that, right?

But honestly, what’s been more meaningful in your life, in anyone’s life, than the first time they loved? And what could be more powerful that wondering if you’ll ever be loved the way you love another? As adults, after many of us having negotiated several, if not many loves, I think we tend to forget the truly life-changing aspect of that first love and its effect on our identity, our selves.

My feelings for my first love, Cindy Crawford, were unquenchable, at least until the cease-and-desist order.

Disreputable History
takes this issue seriously, while also being a hugely entertaining story. I actually think the entertainment level masks that there is something genuine and meaningful at stake in the book. As much as we might like our 15-year-olds to be concerned with something beyond their own immediate sphere, how true would a book like that be to what’s going on in a 15-year-old’s world?

We’ve discussed the divide Piazza is trying to straddle between fiction and non with City of Refuge, which makes it a bit of an odd duck to evaluate, but each time I go back to reflect on the book, it’s the nonfiction that pulled me through. As a novel, I think it’s just so-so. If I was using the Monica Ali standard of judging which book comes closest to hitting its target, a standard that actually makes a lot of sense given our “777’s to tangerines” comparisons we force on our judges, I think Disreputable History comes out on top easily.

So I’m sad to see Frankie go down once again. It’s not a particularly fair fight we set her up for, and she did her best.

Each year it seems like our final is a match-up between a relative unknown and a widely known. Last year’s unknown slot went to Remainder. Two years ago Absurdistan had to battle it out against The Road. City of Refuge is this year’s wildcard. No matter who wins the other Zombie round, it’ll be trying to slay a giant, possibly 2666 for the second time.

Kevin: John, I liked Disreputable History almost as much as you, and I think I liked City of Refuge just barely more than you did. We’re talking about the slightest degrees here, amounts that would be completely negligible if not for the ridiculous tournament conditions that we ourselves have created. But now that they have been pitted against one another, you and I are bitter foes! Your alliance with the Disreputables is unconscionable! I demand you submit and pledge allegiance to the Refugees!

I have noticed some City of Refuge backlash in the comments lately, which is funny because in the early rounds it seemed like not many people were even familiar with it. You documented the difficulty you had even obtaining a copy. But I think it’s attributable to the fact that City of Refuge is the only book that has defeated both 2666 and Disreputable History, novels in which, as you have pointed out, a significant number of people seem to be personally invested.

In the reader comments to yesterday’s match there was an excellent discussion of what I’ll call the existential issues surrounding the Tournament of Books. Why is the ToB here? What is the point? Is it serious? Is it fun? How should it adapt? How could it be made more fair?

From the beginning the thing that always appealed to us is that the ToB simultaneously pursues two contradictory missions: To promote the serious discussion of books by giving one book from the preceding year a prize, and to point out the absurdity of singling out one book among thousands in order to give it a prize.

So it’s supposed to be serious and fun. And I think it usually is. This year much of the fun came in the form of Roberto Bolaño fans declaring that you and I have brains the size of walnuts, but that’s cool. We had a serious discussion about a book, which is all too rare in the public sphere, and we had some conflict and disagreement which creates drama, and that’s entertaining. As celebrities, most novelists fall somewhere between district court judges and the people who’ve paid $35 to have a star named after them. But as you have pointed out, Bolaño and E. Lockhart have real fans, who are as eager to rush to their favorite writer’s defense as Springsteen fans are or Steelers fans, and how cool is that?

This led to some discussion, I think started by folks who were a little melancholy over Disreputable History’s quick exits, who wanted to know how the match-ups could be made more fair. And to be honest, fairness has never really been a priority at the ToB. If anything, we’re trying to point out that the awards process is inherently unfair. We just don’t think that lack of fairness means book awards don’t have any value.

We’ve tried to provide some balance with the booth commentary and this year we added reader comments. I think the passionate defenders of certain novels, even if those books don’t ultimately win, have represented the authors well. I guarantee you that Lockhart and Bolaño and Piazza and Sarvas and Morris and even Toni Morrison have found new readers in this year’s ToB, and any novelist will tell you that new and passionate readers are more valuable than a live rooster. Except for Carolyn Chute who would rather have the rooster.

But passionate readers having fun, that is the point, I think. That’s why the Tournament of Books is here.

And Carolyn Chute jokes.

And to point out that you and I are pinheads.

Reader Comments

On March 27, 2009 at 10:19 AM Erin said…

I really, really wish the commentators had been judges this year, as they seem to be the only people in this tourney willing and able to give Frankie the true respect and consideration that it deserves. Boo.

On March 27, 2009 at 10:36 AM Dodi said…

Refuge is the only book in the contest I've read so far. I bought it after the first round. I enjoyed reading it very much and agree with the critiques.

I would purchase Disreputable and a few others if there were Kindle editions available. I adore the Rooster because of the discussion. There are always a few books that I would never look twice at, but which become a must read for me after reading a few rounds.

I think the color commentators should continue reading all the books in future contests. Even if a book is knocked out in the first round there are three opinions to persuade me for or against.

On March 27, 2009 at 11:02 AM Andrew said…

Well, as always, this year's tournament HAS been fun. I have enjoyed the comments of many of the judges, and evn more so those of the commentators. I was introduced to books I did not know, and as a result bought three of them. One cannot comment on the tournament, I think, without talking about 2666. After reading the commentators' take on it, I forwarded it to the most literate, well-read person I know, a woman who has forgotten more books than I will read in a life filled with reading, and a sharp critical mind to boot. Some of her comments follow: "I wouldn’t bother replying to that — they were bored and I can’t persuade them that they were not bored. For my part I was bored by that “criticism” – a lot of yapping about the tediousness of 2666, and no critical “meat” to speak of. Utterly uninteresting." Ouch. Her take on 2666: "...This is a tour de force, this merciless hammering in cold outrage at the beastliness the world hardly acknowledges...Bolano doesn’t look the other way. He rubs our faces in it. In my book he’d be great for doing that if he’d done nothing else..." And having pondered Kevin and John's comments, as well as my friend's, I still will NOT read the Bolano. City of Refuge is now purchased and next on my reading list; Northern Clemency and Disreputable History will be read soon.

On March 27, 2009 at 11:02 AM Paulie Walnuts said…

Is there such a thing as a Rooster Effect? Does Powell's or Amazon see an uptick in the sales of nominated books? I don't see any of this year's books in Powell's top 50 bestsellers list, but maybe they are beyond that range (aside from past Rooster winners in paperback).

On March 27, 2009 at 11:09 AM Jane said…

City of Refuge will probably win the tournament as it is a perfectly made for the Oh-the-suffering-of-other-non-white-people-at-a-distance NPR mindset, as was last year's overwrought, hopelessly unambitious and Dominican-version-of-Amy-Tan Oscar Wao.

On March 27, 2009 at 11:32 AM Matt said…

@ Andrew:

Why will you still NOT read 2666?

On March 27, 2009 at 12:52 PM Andrew said…

Ultimately, Matt, the time that I would have to devote to 2666 will, I think, be better spent reading a different five novels. It seems to me I would be bored for too much of the time, and that its pretentiousness I would not be able to get over. Maybe I am the loser for my decision but I guess I will never know. I think one of Kevin or John said in ten years 2666 will be seen for what it is. And if it IS in fact the masterpiece its devotees claim, I may read it then.

On March 27, 2009 at 12:05 PM Meghan McCarron said…

While John makes an excellent point that love, and especially first love, makes for serious and meaningful literature (it's kind of hilarious that this even needs to be said), I'd like to take the pro-Frankie argument one step further. The Disreputable History is not just concerned with Frankie's first experience of love. It is concerned with the fact that in order to get and keep love, Frankie is expected to play a demeaning second-fiddle to her boyfriend. Her boyfriend isn't a caricature, either -- in fact he bears close resemblance to the "smart quirky guy" hero of so many love stories/ apatowian rom-coms. But this "smart-quirky-charming" guy professes to love Frankie best when she plays this second fiddle, and withdraws his affection whenever she tries to act like herself.

As to the "lightness" of the book's events, I'm guessing that's a reaction to the fact that The Disreputable History is a comedy. But the fact that it's a comedy is also significant. One of the main ways Frankie's boyfriend makes her feel small, after all, is the fact that he doesn't want/expect her to be funny. Some of the most vivid and true scenes are the ones in which Frankie is expected to sit back, listen, and occasionally giggle coyly while her boyfriend and his friends make witty comments, because girls aren't funny, right? Part of the genius of this book is that a. Frankie gets her revenge by pulling the most hilarious pranks and b. even the witty "guy's guy" banter was written by a woman.

I don't think Frankie is a perfect book. My biggest problem is with the ending, actually. The book keeps insisting she becomes a criminal mastermind, but what self-respecting criminal mastermind decides to return to normal life, more or less, after achieving her triumph? The book opens up a bunch of large, and, dare I say it, political issues, and then tries to smooth them over without complete success. But overall? Look, I'm not going to weigh in on whether it should defeat City of Refuge, because I have not read the latter. But dismissing the Disreputable History as "light" or "insignificant" -- well, that's like something Frankie's boyfriend would say.

Wow, it has taken me a long time to write this comment. Let me put it this way: Frankie inspires so much passion because it is one of the few contemporary books that I can think of (admittedly, completely off-hand) that addresses the seemingly-small, but daily, ways in which women are expected to minimize their own strengths in order to please men. And, yes, it's a book about a fifteen-year-old girl, but as any former fifteen-year-olds can tell you, that is the time when these dynamics start to manifest in force. It's also when they're the most powerful. I mean, who is more slavishly devoted to gender roles than a high school sophomore? Except the editors of Cosmo and certain screenwriters? And that fifteen-year-old self is always lurking around somewhere, ready to rear his or her head again. Especially when it comes to love.

On March 27, 2009 at 5:16 PM Jeri Crowe said…

Can it be a coincidence that the judges who didn't "get" Frankie were both men? These sounds like issues that would be more readily received by women, whereas men might not even understand the "second-fiddle syndrome" exists.

On March 27, 2009 at 12:07 PM Jack W said…

Although it pains me to do so, I have to commend our commentator Kevin Guilfoile today for his words of wisdom about the purpose of the tournament. Kudos to Kevin!

Yes, "serious and fun, that's the point of all this. So controversy, complaints, cries of "foul" and "unfair" as well as moments of glee and triumph as those we dislike falter or fail and our favorites trample and conquer -- all make this a memorable experience.

And there is nothing as satisfying as reading one of the novels which has been judged wrongly (in your own esteemed opinion) and enjoying it heartily. Aha! So there, judge, tournament -- I know what I like and this book rocks. Or not.

In the past three years or so, I've found a few ToB contestants which sounded terrific but turned out to be stinkers when finally met in black in white between the covers.

Yet, mostly, my experience has been rewarding reading both winners and losers. Last year my favorite of all was Joshua Ferris' "And Then We Came to An End." It lost out, and not even in the final round, as ultimately Diaz's redoubtable "Oscar Wao" took the Rooster -- but no matter. Through following ToB I'd discovered new writers I'd likely never have read otherwise.

By making this whole judging the merits of various contending novels open online, ToB provides a whole new dimension of literary adventure. It makes the victories sweet and the losses bitter.

Most of us who love reading fiction have looked to see which works have received the National Book Award, the Booker, the Pulitzer, and especially the Nobel Prize. But we've never really been a part of the process -- never been privy to the inner grinding of the gears of judgment. Never been so motivated to boo and cheer along the way.

And now we can; now we do. And what a blast it is -- win, lose, or draw.

So far this year I've read only one of the ToB entrants, a first-round loser, "The White Tiger." I sought out four or five of the titles and this was the only I could get my hands on. But it was a great read and the comments about it, especially the squeals of outrage at its loss -- had fueled my curiosity.

I had to find out myself whether or not it had been cheated of its prize. The ToB had made me sense something was awry. This suspense itself sweetens the experience of cracking a novel's cover for the first time. Call it the Reader's Rooster -- the prize we receive each and every time we return to the tournament's combatants to make our next selection.

On March 27, 2009 at 12:49 PM James said…

"[O]verwrought, hopelessly unambitious and Dominican-version-of-Amy-Tan Oscar Wao."

Wow. I'll grant that some might find it overwrought, though I didn't, but otherwise that comment seems as off base as the commentariat's response to 2666.

On March 27, 2009 at 7:48 PM Jane said…

I also forgot to use the word "ethno-pornographic" for Wao. It's alright. A lot of people like the book as many will probably like the clean, packaged suffering and historicity of City of Refuge. It's my English Patient, to make a Seinfield reference.

On March 27, 2009 at 7:57 PM Jane said…

And perhaps my comment isn't as off-based as it seems. I think it has to do with the nature of books that are likely to win through all the rounds of this kind of tournament. It's why books with genre qualities like Frankie or chutzpah like 2666 aren't likely to make it through. They're not plucking the right middlebrow, and I'll say it again, top-of-the-lump NPR-audience strings.

On March 28, 2009 at 12:34 AM James said…

I wasn't referring to your remarks about City of Refuge, but to Kevin and John's boat-missing take on 2666. I haven't read City of Refuge, but I suspect you may be right about its appeal.

On March 28, 2009 at 6:43 PM B. Michael Payne said…

I don't think it's necessary to straw man the audience of Oscar Wao in order to deride the book as a stylish attempt at creating emotion where really there are only lacunae filled and colored in with D&D set pieces and totally false nostalgia for a provincial life of the nerdy mind that exists solely as the supposedly true or noble half of a fake dichotomy between authenticity and the jocks that stymie it with wedgies in its embryonic form. I read in the book no gestation of the soul, and I found rare the touching moment. I'm shocked that fans of Oscar Wao cannot get behind Savage Detectives, for instance, as it treads the self-same territory in much greater detail (it SHOWS ITS WORK, you could say) and with more pathos and artistic-representation firepower than the Mr. Diaz has presently in his arsenal.

On March 29, 2009 at 1:44 AM Jane said…

Maybe it wasn't really on point that I strawmanned the supporters of Wao, and I have to aay that Wao wasn't a completely unenjoyable book. It was made to be just perfectly enjoyable, and to me that was its big problem, sugar-coated with a dorky D&D character and adequately seasoned with a contrived sense of "native" history. I just lament the demise of more ambitious and maybe demanding books. Not that I'm a hardcore 2666 fangirl, but I don't see how this book or something like it can get a fair shake in the upcoming rounds of this kangaroo court. So I understand that this tournament of books is not supposed to be a serious thing, but sometimes we want it to be a little so, to take the writing as serious as a book might deserve, just deliver it to us in a way that is fun, thoughtful and non-pedestrian. Maybe that's a lot to ask.

On March 27, 2009 at 1:10 PM Monty said…

I got scared a little, at the end of the booth commentary, that you guys were gonna think about changing this wonderful tournament. Don't!! Don't listen to those johnny-come-lately Disreputable/Bolano fans!!!!
This tournament is the most entertaining avenue of learning about interesting books ever created, and I think a lot of the passion and fun of it would seep out without the disapointed book fans and the crazy matchups.
It's not like we only read the winners, people.
In following the tournament , I tend to read whatever's caught my eye, and i think the impassioned pleas for mercy from the peanut gallery and the booth, and the desparate reviewers trying to choose between two books they liked sparks my interest in more books. Don't ever change, rooster!!

On March 27, 2009 at 1:28 PM Iambic Ker-blameter said…

I wish Borges were still alive so he could write a perfect short story about this contest and all who are trapped in its stakes.

I also wish Marilynne Robinson had fans light-hearted enough to take an interest in cute internet competitions . . . because Home has better sentences and better captures of doubt and duty and dread than any other book in the field.

On March 27, 2009 at 1:31 PM Amy said…

But Home is boring.

Sorry. It had to be said.

On March 27, 2009 at 1:54 PM Felicity said…

Ditto what Meghan said above. I read The Disreputable History based on comments in the first round, and loved it, for exactly the reasons Meghan pointed out. It is incredibly rare these days to find a novel written for people of any age that takes contemporary gender issues seriously - while being funny, fast-paced, and enjoyable. It was by no means a perfect book (I felt vaguely dissatisfied by the end, and wish that there had been even one other female character who was shown to be as smart and interesting as Frankie) but I think the reviewers' easy dismissal of this book is exactly the problem of contemporary feminism... people no longer see it as important, and gloss over the myriad small ways girls are still signaled that they are different (and less than) boys.

All of this said, a great adult novel does address issues with more complexity, and really beautiful prose has a value all its own (Frankie's meditation on the panopticon and her wordplay were wonderful and surprising in the context, but having already gone through my Foucault stage, and my experimentation with words stage, I wasn't learning anything from them - but I think a teenager or someone who wasn't hit over the head with Discipline and Punish freshman year of college could).

I'm reading City of Refuge now, and loving the beauty of the prose. My guess is, I would have made the same decision as the judge in this case - but I bought The Disreputable History for my little sisters, because I want them to have their minds opened up just a little bit by it.

On March 27, 2009 at 5:48 PM meave said…

Frankie just isn't that good. I love YA lit, I love stories about girls realizing the dudes they kowtow are boring, stupid, overconfident and in need of a take-down. Frankie comes close. I really, really wanted to like it more than I did, but it didn't happen. It built to a big conclusion that fell totally, boringly flat, and then I didn't care what happened to any of them.

Maybe that was the point of the novel? That, Oh well, you can't actually win at life, especially when your opponents have so many advantages over you, especially when you're a girl? Or maybe that's what I concluded because the ending made such a loud CLUNK.

But hey literature, judging its merits is so subjective, right?

On March 28, 2009 at 2:35 AM Billy Bob said…

Re: Amy

I loved "Home." It's only boring if you're bored by real people and deep internal struggles.

And it's too bad that more supporters didn't come out of the woodworks to defend it, but it's the type of book that gains support over decades, not like some other books in this competition which have seen a quick spike in fans but which will fade from memory in a few years.

On March 28, 2009 at 10:22 AM Amy said…

Hey Billy Bob,
Actually I love real people and deep internal struggles. But what bored me was that as beautiful as many of the sentences were, they stayed separate from the internal struggles for me. They weren't integrated. I kept finding myself so distracted by admiring the sentences that I didn't build an attachment to the characters. I loved her first book, Housekeeping, which I thought did a much better job of keeping characters and language functioning together.

It is indeed all very subjective, but to assume I don't care about real people and deep internal struggles isn't quite correct.

On March 29, 2009 at 2:03 AM Jane said…

Re: Amy

I'd disagree and say that the sentences in Housekeeping are even more conventionally "beautiful" than in the latter two. And Home and Gilead, according to this subjective view, still transcend the relatively snappier, showy and more plot-driven Housekeeping. Robinson learned to do amazing things with with less.

I don't think you don't care about real people and internal struggles because you didn't like Home. You just have to be in the right place for it. Maybe reread it again in 5 or 10 years. I've discovered the greatness of books I was bored to death with in high school.

On March 29, 2009 at 2:06 AM Jane said…

And that's not to be condescending, as if you need a few more years to be a better reader. By place I mean a junction of time/circumstance/mood in your life.

On March 29, 2009 at 11:15 AM Amy said…

Glad you clarified--because high school for me was many, many years ago. :-)

And it may be that those books will never "gel" for me. People often seem divided between Housekeeping and Robinson's later books. A local book club was almost evenly divided between those who loved Gilead and those who hated it. Let's face it--not every book works for every reader (as this Tournament has most definitely shown!), even if I am probably in the right age and life-experience group. Another book that seems to polarize people is Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. I go back and reread that every few years and get more out of it every time--it's one of my top favorite books ever--but I know people who can't stand it and think it's drivel.