The Lacuna
  • April 5, 2010


  • Commentary by

    Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

  • This Year’s Champion:

    1Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

John: The closest finish in the history of the Tournament of Books, the closest finish possible, and yet, I’m one of those readers who was unthrilled. I’m not quite in Carolyn Kellogg territory and declaring these books “torture,” but I found both a fair bit from highly pleasurable. In my reading of the judgments, the intensity of the positive votes was higher for The Lacuna than for Wolf Hall, but with one vote per judge, it’s going to cost us some extra postage to send that live fowl across the pond. While I’m not that enthusiastic, it’s clear that plenty of our judges were, though. Alex Balk is ready for a sequel to Wolf Hall and Sam Anderson seems equally as stoked by the book. Meave Gallagher “can’t stop loving” The Lacuna. This year, like every year, is a good one for books because books are good.

Congratulations to Hilary Mantel. Her trophy case for the 2009-10 season is going to need an addition if this keeps up.

Kevin: One with airholes, anyway.

Some people might be disappointed that the ToB ended with these heavyweights squared off against one another. Maybe because we’re an internet concern, they want the Rooster to be a champion for the underdog and the underappreciated (it is that, but it’s not only that) by striking a blow against the popular and the celebrated. Good for them. We are what we are, and they will try to tell us who they think we are by telling us what they think we should be. So it goes.

Criticism, as opposed to a book review, is always about the reader more than it is about the book. And here, with two books so evenly matched in the set of ToB judges, we have a referendum on what these judges value much more than we have a statement about what these authors have accomplished.

Earlier I said books that win awards are often a compromise pick, and I suggested the ToB might be a different animal. I think that’s still true. What we have in these final judgments is not a discussion leading to a consensus so much as an argument that ends abruptly with Jessica Francis Kane’s gavel. If it were best of 21 instead of best of 17 it could have easily gone the other way. Was anything decided here? No. But it was fun.

John: I also say this every year, but I say it because it’s true, this was the best Tournament ever. Our audience and their commentary continues to add a dimension in terms of the depth and breadth and intelligence that I think you can’t find anywhere on the internet. Unlike just about any other prize in any category, they make it so the arrival at this moment is far more about the journey than the destination, which I think is a pretty fitting metaphor for the actual process of reading.

My personal highlight of the Tournament was my day as the Biblioracle where I had the privilege of recommending better than 100 books I’ve really loved over the years. In fact, this year’s Tournament was so fun, I’m already eagerly looking forward to next year. To that end, I thought I’d share my own personal ToB 2011 “watch list.” It’s important to note that this list means nothing for the ultimate selection of titles that make the Tournament—that’s above my pay grade—but these are the books that are on my radar as some of the ones I think we’ll be discussing this time next year. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and offer to bet another wheel of stinky cheese that some book on this list is next year’s champion. I’ve already read the first four and I highly recommend all of them. As for the rest, I’m hoping to have a chance to read as many of them as possible.

  • The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
  • Next by James Hynes
  • So Much for That by Lionel Shriver
  • Model Home by Eric Puchner
  • The Privileges by Jonathan Dee
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett
  • The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald
  • Solar by Ian McEwan
  • Palo Alto: Stories by James Franco
  • Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne
  • Witz by Joshua Cohen
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell
  • The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody
  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
  • The Handbook for Lightening Strike Survivors by Michele Young-Stone
  • The Hole We’re In by Gabrielle Zevin
  • The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek
  • The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine
  • True Confections by Katharine Weber
  • Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom
  • The Infinities by John Banville
  • The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
  • Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever: Stories by Justin Taylor
  • Angelology by Danielle Trussoni
  • The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight by Gina Oschner
  • The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Sleepless by Charlie Huston
  • Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
  • The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
  • Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich
  • The Heights by Peter Hedges
  • Innocent by Scott Turow
  • Lost by Alice Lichtenstein
  • Private Life by Jane Smiley
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
  • The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
  • The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee
  • A Thousand Cuts by Simon Lelic

There’s also two additional novels being released in 2010 that I’m looking forward to, but sadly aren’t eligible for the Tournament of Books: Rosecrans Baldwin’s You Lost Me There, and your own The Thousand. Good luck to both of you guys in finding the sales and critical love you deserve.

Kevin: Aw, thanks for the plug, buddy. My hope is that people will walk into bookstores vaguely remembering they wanted to buy David Mitchell’s book and when they ask the clerk, “I think it’s called The Thousand something…,” they will end up buying mine by mistake. I hope it will be to 2010 what Liam Callanan’s The Cloud Atlas was to 2004.

Since you mentioned it, there are actually several other TMN contributors with 2010-ineligible books coming out this summer: Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr, Let’s All Find Awesome Jobs by Kevin Fanning, The New Modern House by Jonathan Bell, The Report by (ToB tiebreaker) Jessica Francis Kane, and Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk by Todd Levin.

John: Lastly, thanks to everyone who makes the Tournament possible, Field Notes, Powell’s Books, and Urban Outfitters; Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin; Andrew Seal; you, of course—and a special personal thanks to Bill Cotter, Nami Mun, Lorrie Moore, and Marlon James, who wrote four of my most favorite books of the year.

Kevin: It was fun, brother. I actually have Lipstyte’s The Ask sitting unopened in front of me, waiting to be read later tonight.

And so it all begins again.

Kevin Guilfoile is a contributing writer for TMN. His debut novel, Cast of Shadows, has been translated into more than 17 languages, and his second novel, The Thousand, will be published in August 2010 by Alfred A. Knopf.

John Warner is a contributing writer for TMN. He is the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant. He teaches at Clemson University.

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