by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
If you’re the betting, bookish type, there’s not much fun in filling out a safe bracket for the Tournament of Books. But this year there may be money in a lack of imaginationor, if you’re playing for pride, at least some gloating. In fact, although there have been some well-defined patterns for success over the past five Tournaments, this year there was far less deviation from the trends I outlined in the Opening Round preview than I, in my heart of hearts, truly anticipated.
An average of one no. 1 seed loses in the Opening Round each year, and A Gate at the Stairs fell to that destiny, while the no. 2 and no. 3 seeds split their matches evenly, following the results of years past. Also as expected, longer books performed very well, winning seven of eight matches. Veteran authorswriters with five or more books under their beltdid very slightly worse than their historical winning percentagethis year 56 percent (five of nine winners); past years about 59 percent. Debut novelists, on the other hand, got schooled: Only one of four moved on, which was expected.
The publisher pedigree, on the other hand, was a little shakier. We tend to think of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Random House, and Knopf as the Big Three in the Tournament, and they collectively did not have a very good year: Out of five books in the field, only Random House’s Let the Great World Spin received an invitation to the Quarterfinals. On the other hand, FSG has not had a winning record in the Opening Round over the last five years, and Knopf has barely broken even.
The only really uncharacteristic development was how gender played out in this round. Women, who have over the past three years had only a 37-percent Opening Round winning percentage, did much better this year (winning four of seven), a change which can possibly be explained by two factors.
First, more women this year held a no. 1 seed than in any prior year.1 Second would be page length: As you can see from the table below, women bulked up this year while men lost a lot of muscle mass over the offseason.
|Gender||Average 2010 Page Length||Past Five Years|
While writing a longer book doesn’t necessarily translate to Opening Round Rooster success, we have seen what Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner have been calling a gravitas gap in matchups where one novel is significantly longer (and generally weightier) than its opponent. The effect is most pronounced in matchups where the page gap is greater or equal to 300 pages, and while we did not have any such matchups this year, the effect seems to have carried over almost universally.
Words like monster, epic (used to describe both The Help and The Lacuna), immense, sweeping, Big Ideas, exhausting, and vast confusion were used as terms of approval or grudging respect by the judges to justify their preferences. Of course, as these terms show, this gravitas gap isn’t or at least isn’t merely quantitative; a lot of it is certainly intuitive. But it’s pretty obvious that size matters a lot in the Opening Round, whether that’s measured in girth and weight or in Big Ideas and ambition.
What about the Quarterfinals? Do longer books tend to do as well once we’ve narrowed the field to an Elite Eight? Has gender made as big a difference in past years? Does seeding go to pot?
Let’s go to the tape.
A few things we can get out of the way: Size is still maybe the biggest factor. Books under 300 pages still do not do well. Only three of 14 have won their Quarterfinal matchup, just a 21-percent success rate. On the other hand, books over 500 pages have an extraordinary winning percentagesix of eight, or 75 percent. Overall, longer books have a very respectable edgea 65-percent winning percentage. But when you break out the matchups that have a 200-plus page difference between the competitors, the advantage is much more significant: Five of six such matchups have gone to the longer book.2
|Page Count||Winning %|
|>200, <300 Pages||20.00%|
|>300, <400 Pages||63.64%|
|>400, <500 Pages||57.14%|
Historically, women do much, much better in the Quarterfinals, particularly in matchups with menthey win about 72 percent of those brackets, and around 64 percent overall. But there is not much change in terms of the author’s experience: Veteran authors (those who have written five or more books) still have a significant advantage, although that edge is not much sharper this round than last. On the other hand, debut novels absolutely get killed in the Quarterfinals. Only one in all previous Tournaments (Jonathan Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which was also a no. 1 seed) made it out alive. Authors on their second book perform about as well in the Quarterfinals as they do in the Opening Round, and there is a modest bump in success for authors on their third or fourth book. In the tables below, I’ve listed the historical winning percentages for the Opening Round and Quarterfinals for a comparison by gender and by career position.
|Career Position||Quarterfinal Win %||Opening Round Win %|
|Author’s First Book||16.67%||40.00%|
|Author’s Second Book||42.86%||46.67%|
|Third or Fourth Book||57.14%||43.75%|
|Gender||Quarterfinal Win %||Opening Round Win %|
|Male v. Female||28.57%||63.33%|
|Female v. Male||71.43%||36.67%|
Seeding is not exactly a surprise; having the higher seed is a strong advantage, but not much stronger than in the Opening Round (70 percent Quarterfinals, 65 percent Opening Round). Here are the Quarterfinal records from the past five years for all possible matchups, and then overall higher versus lower seed:
|Matchup||Higher Seed||Lower Seed|
|No. 1 v. No. 2||66.67%||33.33%|
|No. 1 v. No. 3||77.78%||22.22%|
|No. 2 v. No. 4||66.67%||33.33%|
|No. 3 v. No. 4||50.00%||50.00%|
And as with the Opening Round, your pedigree matters: Two publishers have had significant repeated success, and others have been repeatedly frustrated in the Quarterfinals. As you can see from the data below, a Random House logo on a book’s spine is a good indication of Quarterfinal success, while Knopf has been nearly shut out over six books. And the other member of the Big Three (in terms of literary fiction), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has successfully sent all three of its titles onto the Semifinals.
|Publisher Trend||Winning %||Appearances|
|Nan A. Talese||100.00%||1|
|Simon & Schuster||100.00%||1|
Unfortunately, FSG will not be able to add to this sterling record this year, as its two titles in the fieldEverything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Lowboyhave gone down to defeat. But I’m guessing the Random House-published Let the Great World Spin will probably be punching its ticket to the Semifinals, easily putting paid to The Help.
The Lacuna is just over the 500-page mark, so will it add to the past Quarterfinal successes of doorstops? It’s also a no. 1 seed facing a no. 3, a matchup which has gone to the no. 1 seed seven out of every nine times, making Burnt Shadows look like a huge longshot. Wolf Hall versus The Anthologist is a very similar matchup, although the difference between the two novels in length is more severe (Hilary Mantel’s novel is almost 300 pages longer), and Nicholson Baker’s novel is a no. 2 seed, which has a very slightly better record against top seeds.
The last matchup pairs two intriguing dark horsesno. 3 seed Big Machine versus no. 4 seed The Book of Night Women. There have only ever been two no. 3 versus no. 4 matchups, and each side has won once, so it’s tough to tell who will come out on top.3 As judge C. Max Magee pointed out in his commentary, Book of Night Women follows last year’s winner A Mercy in being told in a slave patois. But A Mercy was 176 pages long while Night Women is 417. Will the dialect get to the judges? We’ll see. In the meantime, I’d like to take a moment to salute the venerable but now-defeated Margaret Atwood, who was obviously the most badass author in the Tournament, as one can clearly see by watching this video.4
We’re getting some clarity in the Quarterfinals: The trends are more straightforward and stronger, and some favorites are emerging. Whether the matchups actually play out the way they’re supposed to, though, we’ll just have to see.
1This year three of the top seeds were written by women; only once before have there been two in a year2006. ↩
2The only exception? Back in 2005the first year of the Tournament, Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World, weighing in at 310 pages, so no lightweight itself, KO’d Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was a debut novel, a disadvantage as we shall see in a moment. ↩
3Last year, eventual runner-up Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge beat no. 4 seed Marks Sarvas’s Harry, Revised, and in 2007, Half of a Yellow Sun defeated no. 3 seed The Emperor’s Children. ↩
4The video also leads me to wonder how scary The Handmaid’s Tale might have been if they had put a picture of Atwood in a hockey mask on the back cover. ↩
Andrew Seal is a first-year grad student in American Studies, where he usually tries to stay away from numbers, taking shelter in the humanities. Now he knows why. He also blogs at Blographia Literaria.