The Morning News

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.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

The 2009 ToB Contenders List

The 2009 Judges & Brackets

All titles 30% off at

ToB T-Shirts

The Rooster on Facebook, and on Twitter

#ToB Tweets

Previous years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Contact the Tournament staff:

Kevin: Every morning I make breakfast, take my oldest son to school, and then spend half an hour over at TMZ inserting line breaks into the latest Lindsay Lohan quotes, transforming them into poetry. Yesterday’s LiLioKu was especially good, I thought:
The (Sycophants) and the Noise
By Lindsay Lohan

I move forward
And I change.
Life’s too short not to.
If people would just leave
My personal life alone—
Because it’s really not all that interesting—
Then I could land
A great role.
But all the sicko fans
And the noise
Is so distracting.
When I filled out my bracket I had A Dart League King meeting A Northern Clemency in this round. And as much as I liked A Mercy, I’m a little surprised it’s made it this far. The bottom half of this bracket was heavy with books I thought would be out-and-out crowd pleasers and I figured A Mercy, even with its lovely prose, would have a tough time getting past them. But since it survived a toss-up in the first round, A Mercy has cruised.

Further evidence, if one needed it, that I am the Sergeant Schultz of literary criticism.

Which brings us to the next round’s match-ups. Shadow Country didn’t fare very well in the Zombie voting. I suspect the voters felt about it the way most of the judges did—and you and I, as well—that it’s a significant accomplishment, but a novel we admired more than we loved.

So now let’s tally up the votes from the ToB’s own sicko fans and meet our Zombies.

It wasn’t even close. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks had lots and lots more votes than any other book. Second place wasn’t much of a contest either with 2666 far outpacing The Lazarus Project. The judges’ selections on the other hand, City of Refuge and A Mercy, got almost no reader support in the Zombie poll. So we really are looking at the popular choices vs. the judges’ picks in this next round.

Since we have one Zombie from each bracket, we will switch them up to avoid a rematch. Rosecrans Baldwin will be choosing between The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and City of Refuge. Andrew Womack will pick either 2666 or A Mercy to go to the finals.

John: This makes it two years in a row that Bolaño has made an appearance in our Zombie Round. Last year, after a first-round exit, The Savage Detectives came back only to be defeated by—wait for it—Junot Díaz and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Tournament handicappers should note that the judge in that contest was the same for our upcoming A Mercy v. 2666 match, TMN’s Andrew Womack.

For what it’s worth, in his comment on that match, Womack remarked, “Halfway through The Savage Detectives, I placed an order for Nazi Literature in the Americas and 2666,” and declared himself a “nascent Bolaño fan.” One would imagine that Womack has therefore already read 2666 except that that the edition that arrived was the original version in Spanish, and though I know Andrew to be a smart guy, I don’t think his Español is up to that task.

As is well-documented, I could barely handle the translation.

What’s clear from the Zombie voting is that Bolaño and E. Lockhart don’t just have readers, they have fans. In this year’s tournament, any pairing with 2666 in it was likely to be our most discussed of the week, and we’ve seen the Bolaño fandom show up in our comments throughout the tourney as there’s been considerable pushback against our negative impressions, including a comment where it was declared of us, “this is as clear a case of ‘not getting’ a piece of literature as I’ve seen.”

Again, the insight is obvious, but these readers didn’t just enjoy the book, they’re invested in it. At some level (maybe a low one, but a level nonetheless), liking 2666 or Bolaño’s books is part of those readers’ identities or self-image. It’s meaningful that someone feels compelled to write a comment (in come cases very long comments) about a book that someone else (particularly a couple of low-level jokers like us) disliked.

The phenomenon is even more pronounced with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, where we had fans of Ms. Lockhart (and young-adult literature as a whole), rallying to the cause in the voting. Sure, it was plenty easy to cast a vote in the Zombie competition, but there’s only one book where the readers got together and disseminated the word and turned out in force. The comments on Disreputable History’s first-round matchup are also plenty illustrative of the fan phenomenon. While the peanut gallery voting went 2/3 to Shadow Country, the comments are overwhelmingly pro-Frankie, including this one, my favorite:
“Dislike away. But don’t put down books that actually make a difference in some kid’s life. FRANKIE had some real deep and meaningful shit in there and as a teenager, I don’t consider it disposable or replaceable. Maybe if all y’all old folks would realize that YA books are meant to be aimed at teens, you would better understand how the issues of stuff going on at school, with boyfriends is actually important. Until you make that connection, that teens have different values than adults, I pity your kids.”
In his judgment, Anthony Doerr said of the book, “Nothing truly fundamental gets shaken up here,” but clearly, the book’s fans disagree. I may be wrong, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing any passionate blog postings or comments protesting the bouncing of Shadow Country from the tournament.

Frankly, I’m envious. We all want readers, but wow, it would be something else to have fans.

Reader Comments

On March 26, 2009 at 9:46 AM Amy said…

I absolutely love Shadow Country, and I'm sorry to see it go. However, you won't see me berating the judges or other commentators who are happy to see the other books move forward. I will continue to enjoy the contest, and I'm looking forward to reading some of the other books that I've discovered by reading the judges' reviews and the commentary.

On March 26, 2009 at 9:47 AM kfan said…

It seems to me that in just about every round of the tournament the judges have expressed some frustration about being forced to compare two such disparate books. Is there some way of addressing this more directly in the brackets next year? Or are literary judges by nature too genial and afraid of hurting another author's feelings? I wonder if the judges for the Turner Prize have the same frustrations. Just thinking aloud here.

I mean, yes, on one level it'll be strange to have Frankie competing against City of Refuge, and in a sense any comparisons are meaningless. But it's also SUPER FUN to compare them and see what happens, right? I mean that's why we're all here: it's fun to think about books.

On March 26, 2009 at 10:25 AM Pierce said…

Kfan took the words right out of my mouth here, but I'm going to say them anyway: It seems in years past there was a happier recognition of the essential silliness of the competition. It's a ridiculous idea, that's why we're having fun, right?

On March 26, 2009 at 10:45 AM Michael F. said…

Hell yes. I know I'm having fun. I want to know if someone doesn't like a book, or does like a book, and I want to know why. The thinking that Kfan's talking about—all the messy figuring out of why a book moves you or bores you to tears, I've always thought that was the best part about the Rooster, that judges say why—for their messed-up, totally biased, personal reasons—one book worked for them and one didn't.

Frankly I wish Junot Díaz had gone on more about his thoughts on these books, from the writer's perspective. I mean, he fucking wrote Oscar Wao, an unbelievably good book—so how did the process of writing that, for example, influence how he read these two books? That's the kind of stuff I wish the Rooster judges gave us more of.

On March 26, 2009 at 10:57 AM Amy said…

I have to admit when I originally looked at the brackets, I thought, huh, not much there I want to read. But somehow all the passionate discussion has caused several of these books to land on my TBR stacks.

Not, however, 2666.

On March 26, 2009 at 11:10 AM John Williams said…

Taking off from Michael F.'s point, I think the essential silliness of any given decision is leavened somewhat by the quantity of those decisions. Whatever book wins the Rooster has accumulated the "messed-up, totally biased, personal reasons" of several judges. In this way, the ToB does mirror the basketball tournament that inspired it. Whatever team wins it might have been beaten by an opponent they didn't even play, but might have if the brackets fell a different way -- but winning the six games in a row is feat enough to deserve the "champ" label.

Tangentially, I'm really surprised at the level of love for City of Refuge in this tourney. I haven't read it, but that's partly because the very mixed reviews I read at the time of publication were pretty convincing.

On March 27, 2009 at 11:36 AM Richard Franco said…

I totally understand that City of Refuge is a novel, and I have to say that I have not read it. However, my comments were based on the review which stated the book akso was "a fiction punctuated by nonfiction". In a case like that, I would prefer to read a non-fiction account of the subjecy t rather then a novel. This is not a knock against historical fiction at all. I should have stated my reason for the comment in my original statement. Thanks for responding, and I totally agree with you, this should be fun, which I think it is.

Richard Franco

On March 26, 2009 at 11:34 AM Richard Franco said…

I love the idea of this tourment. I only found out about it a little over a week ago. All the awards should be judged like this. I have read about half of the books mentioned so I at least have been able to have a rooting interest. Who decides which books make the tournman? Some of my favorites this year not on the list were "Pelican Road", "So Brave Young and Handsome", and, my actual favorite ofr the year "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle". So little recognition for Sawtelle anywhere. I thought it was a great book. Is there a bias against books that make tje bestseller list for 9 months? Would like your opinions of the book if possible. Now that Shadow Country and 2666 are out, which were my favorites from your list, I will be pulling for A Mercy which was also terrific. As for "City of Refuge" I had already read "The Great Deluge" by Douglas Brinkly and I don't think you can improve on that. Also, why not cover Non-Fiction as well? Keep up the great work. You have added a fan to your web site.

On March 26, 2009 at 12:49 PM Herman Melville said…

I'm a hundred percent with the "this is supposed to be fun, remember?" crowd. Anybody who takes this kind of Tournament Of Subjective Responses too seriously is really missing the point. The point is to have a lively discussion about books we have read, and books we want to read. The key there is "have read" and "want to read." There is no point in people dumping on books they haven't even read, no matter what the genre or reviews were. Those who think "Dart League" sounds too lightweight because of its topic, or who dismiss "City Or Refuge" because they read a bad review of it, or they mistake it for a nonfiction book, or throw out "Landau-Banks" because it is labeled "young adult," without having read the books in question, are, I think out of the spirit of this tournament.

And I must do a little goal-tending, here, for City Of Refuge (which I personally bet on to win), specifically in response to John Williams and Richard Franco, above. To John W --the novel did get a horrible review in the NYTBR, but it was also a best book of the year for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Christian Science Monitor. Google it and you'll see. It got favorable reviews in the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, almost every other place than the NYTBR that I saw at least, as well as receiving blurbs from Mary Gaitskill, Richard Ford, and a bunch of other writers I respect.... Maybe the blurbs and the good reviews don't matter any more than the negative review. I don't know, but there is no replacement for reading a book before you form an opinion of it.

And to Richard F -- The Great Deluge is a very good history of the week immediately following Hurricane Katrina. I read it - I'm a New Orleans lover - it is compelling, and full of factual errors, and a very good book nonetheless, believe it or not. City Of Refuge covers a period of six months, and is a NOVEL. The thing that surprises me is that so few of the 'reader responses' here discuss it as a novel, which is what it is. Novels, I think, do different kinds of things than nonfiction accounts. Somebody in one of the responses mentioned Dan Baum's Nine Lives. Good book, absolutely. But it is not a novel, and it doesn't try to do the things a novel tries to do. City of Refuge does do those things. People are divided about how well the book does them, but obviously the judges are responding to it as more than just a documentary tearjerker about a disaster.

Anyway. I ran into all this after Moby-Dick was published. People read it as a book about a whale chase. Bastards. We didn't even have a "young adult" category then, or they would have probably tried to publish it as an Adventure Story For Teens. The Disreputable History of Stubb and Starbuck. I had to take a horrible day job to support me while I wrote what I still consider my masterpiece, Pierre, or The Ambiguities. The original title was Pierre, Ambiguous, but I anticipated exactly the kind of resistance that David Rees expressed about Mark Sarvas' title, and I changed it in galleys. In any case, some people form strong opinions about things of which they have no experience; I would prefer not to.

On March 26, 2009 at 12:59 PM Herman Melville said…

And a quick postscript -- I just met Roberto Bolano last week in Hell, and he is voting for A Mercy.

On March 26, 2009 at 1:08 PM Matt said…

Picking up where Richard Franco left off, I think it would be great to see a companion competition for works of non-fiction. Think of a Malcolm Gladwell up against a Tom Friedman...or a sportswriter against a historian. It's as equally arbitrary as the ToB, yet I would suspect just as oddly fascinating. Perhaps it could be done in the fall and mock the college football bowl system. Just a thought...

On March 26, 2009 at 2:43 PM Matt Evans said…

It seems to me, thinking quickly because on a 10-minute break, that there are three categories of ToB judges: (1) The Irritated Purist who reviles a system that doesn't judge books along his/her purified literary taste lines. Dale Peck was the most extreme judge in this category, and I was surprised to see Junot D. lean at least slightly this way. (2) The Quick and Dirty who cranks out a quick review without putting much of him-/herself into the process. I won't name names, but we've seen this judge before. (3) The Paul/Paulene Sedaris who just has a great time with the thing. The kind of judge who puts his/her arm around your shoulder and introduces you to the "Fuck-it Bucket," a bucket filled with candy; a stranger/friend who says "sometimes you just have to say 'fuck it' and eat some motherfucking candy." (Speaking here of books as candy.)

I want more of the number (3) judges. So far this year, I'd put John Hodgman and Brockman both in this category for their well thought-out and funny and entertaining reviews.

The steam-whistle's blown, back to the grind.

On March 26, 2009 at 3:08 PM Matt Evans said…

@ Matt:

I heartily second the idea of a non-fiction Rooster. Great idea.

On March 26, 2009 at 6:00 PM Rosecrans Baldwin said…

We've been talking about a non-fiction Rooster for a couple years now. Looks we need to get up off our asses and make it happen!

On April 3, 2009 at 8:38 PM Alyssa said…

Maybe you could call it the Chicken.

On March 26, 2009 at 4:12 PM Zach Soldenstern said…

"Again, the insight is obvious, but these readers didn’t just enjoy the book, they’re invested in it. At some level (maybe a low one, but a level nonetheless), liking 2666 or Bolaño’s books is part of those readers’ identities or self-image."

John, I love you guys, but this is BS, and also unfair. I don't know the Latin, but it feels like some kind of rhetorical violation. Like a cousin of ad hominem. I think the reason many commenters keep heckling you guys about 2666 is not that you disagree with them - you didn't enjoy the book, but that's fine - but that you can't credit them with having been enchanted by it. This writer's empirical experience: if he is invested in it, it's because he REALLY, REALLY enjoyed the book, more than anything else that was published last year. This was not a foregone conclusion, or a bandwagon jumping - the jury was still out halfway through Part II - but this reader basically read the book a second time immediately upon finishing it. And Part IV was the MOST enjoyable (although, as someone has noted, it's almost impossible to recommend.)

Anyway, give your commenters a little more credit, eh?

On March 26, 2009 at 5:30 PM John Warner said…

I don't mean to imply that I think that the fans of 2666 are coming from anywhere other than a genuine place, particularly the ones that are taking the time to post and discuss and comment here. I think the intensity of the passion for the book among its supporters is such that it can't be anything else. A bandwagon jumper isn't going to take the time to post a comment. The tourney is always pointing out the "different strokes for different folks" aspect of books and reading and I don't want to imply that with 2666 there are no strokes to be had for anyone. Clearly, for many, there are great strokes there.

The point I'm trying to make is that the degree of liking is so deep that it becomes part of one's self. I think this is a veritable pre-requisite of fandom. When we are a fan and the object of our fandom is criticized, we are literally wounded. (Unless we do it among like-minded fans. Cubs fans can joke about the team amongst themselves all they want, but if a Cardinals fan starts in, there's going to be blood spilled.) A lot of people liked a lot of the books in the tourney, but they aren't "fans." For whatever reason, and I think there's many, Bolano is collecting not just readers, but fans.

Thinking more and off the top of my head and probably risking more ire, I do think that fandom (and I'm talking in general here, not about 2666 or Bolano fans specifically) can create a space where we can be forgiving and uncritical, where we read the best of intentions into the work. I don't have a problem with this, but it's a psychological phenomenon nonetheless. It's why whenever a new Rolling Stones album comes out, boomer music critics will say it's a "return to form" or the best Stones album since "Tattoo You," no matter that they said the same thing about the previous album.

I'm not going to discount that fact that a lot of people genuinely really really enjoyed the book. But at the same time, I think it's entirely possible that, at least for some, the "best album since Tattoo You phenomenon could be at work. In wishing for it, we make it true.

I'm sad that the tournament is almost over and I'll have to turn in my soapbox soon.

On March 26, 2009 at 7:08 PM Matt Evans said…

@ John about "Fandom":

You bring up a really interesting point here that I don't see literary circles talk about much, in snide tones. Like, for example, Stephen King and John Grisham and, oh, say, Richard Paul Evans have "fans" but more literary or hoity-toity writers have groups or schools of people: Nabokov has Nabokovians, Joyce has Joyceans, Faulkner has scholars and excited but confused readers, denizens of Yoknapatawpha County, etc.

Full Disclosure: I'm a Stephen King and (early) John Grisham fan, a part-time denizen of Yoknapatawpha county, and a rabid Nabokovian. My feelings for first three writers vary -- I love their good stuff, am totally indifferent to their mediocre and bad stuff, and was totally outraged (threw the book across the room) by Grisham's novel of about four years ago, where in the book's final chapter he fumbles awkwardly for the readers tear-ducts -- but I don't know if that's Rolling Stone's like fandom. As to which, Van Halen is probably my Rolling Stones, and I just couldn't give less of a shit about Van Halen these days, even though I LOVE their early stuff. (Maybe as a Gen-X-er, product of divorce and '80s-whatnot, I'm not capable of full emotional investment.)

Yet in the case of Nabokov, I find that I've become all kinds of subjective. Like, I'll read just about anything he's attached his name to. I'd allow myself to be adopted by him. My fandom has shaded into this weird kind of quasi-emotional/familial type relationship, and I'm not entirely sure what that's about. Yet, it's more than a psychological phenomenon, I think. That is, scholars, many scholars, will attest to Nabokov's writerly cred. He is objectively good. On the other hand, many readers claim that N's stuff is too cerebral and emotionally cold, and thus not capable of engaging the reader's soul -- which the writing is, if you don't know how to read it; but if you know how to read it, you'll find amazing depths of real emotion, pockets of ecstasy. So, in sum, I have this giddy school-girl like attachment to Nabokov's writing, on the one hand, but on the other hand, I can also point to scholars, etc., who lend support to Nabokov as an objectively Important Writer. He's no Rolling Stones. Or, better said, he's both Rolling Stones and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Having read nothing of Bolano or Bolano scholarship, I don't have the faintest idea where he fits on the continuum. Is he a Stephen King or a John Grisham, a writer who has "fans" but little or no critical support, or is he a Nabokov, a Joyce, a Faulkner, a Hemingway? Is Bolano's readers' partisanship mere "fandom" or is it a sign of objectively good taste? Is it a blend of both; i.e., fandom and good taste? Does it matter?

That's what I love about the Rooster. It combines the raucous, partisan Animal House glee of pure fandom with at least some rationalization, some scholarship, some attempts at explication.

Here's a quick prediction for 2010's Rooster: if Nabokov's /Original of Laura/ (scheduled for Fall 2009 publication) makes it, you're in for a passionate, heated fan/scholar v. non-fan/non-scholar match up that will (I hope) put /2666/'s dust-up to shame.

Prediction for 2011's Rooster: if David Foster Wallace's /Pale King/ makes its Spring 2010 publication date, and if /PK/ makes the 2011 Rooster, then you'll see the whole fan/scholar v. non-fan/non-scholar thing go nuclear.

Or not.

On March 26, 2009 at 8:53 PM Kim said…

I'm assuming every author reading the tournament is now praying for fandom.

This is my first year at the ToB, love it! Love the style of reviews and the fact that the choices are impossible, but so what, let's chose anyway.

Non-fiction tourney sounds terrific!

On March 26, 2009 at 9:59 PM chiles said…

2 things:

1) Whoever wins, John Hodgman owns this year's tourney and deserves his own Rooster.

2) i would totally love to see Frankie go up against 2666. Eli-the-Swedish-vampire-girl vs Godzilla (the man-in-the-floppy-rubber-suit one, not the rubbish CGI one)! Zombiepocalypse!

Bonus 'thing': Somehow, so far, this year's tourney has been not as fun as last year's.

Bring back the fun.

On March 27, 2009 at 8:07 PM Derek Jeter said…

What's up with the hostility, Junot Diaz?