March 31, 2010

Zombie Round Preview
Past Winners Review


Andrew Seal

After a controversial Semifinal round, we now pull into the Zombie Round, a wrinkle pretty much unique to the Tournament of Books and pretty much unfeasible anywhere else. (Can you imagine a Zombie Round in the N.C.A.A. tournament? Or how about in electoral primaries? Cornells and Ron Pauls getting a second chance at the top dog? It would be havoc.)

The Tournament of Books introduced the Zombie Round in 2006, its second season. I can say this because I was not involved at the time: I think it’s a pretty genius move. The Tournament’s structure is quite likely to create a “bad” pairing once or twice in the first three rounds, whether that’s a bracket of books which react to one another like matter and anti-matter, rendering evaluation null and kind of capricious, or whether that’s a judge who has never liked historical fiction or, conversely, who’s a bit of a “homer” for a specific author, following them devotedly for years.

The Zombie Round obviously gives two books a chance to bounce back from this kind of misfortune—with the added bonus of secretly skipping to the penultimate round of the Tournament, a win-and-you’re-in scenario.

But does it work?

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Zombies have not had a great record in these four years: Only two of the eight undead have feasted on another book’s brains: Remainder in 2008 and Absurdistan in 2007.

On the other hand, up until this year, TMN’s co-editors, Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin, have been the judges for the Zombie Round every year—if you were a Zombie, Rosecrans or Andrew read you and weighed your fate. Now, with two new judges—Sam Anderson and Julie Powell—will we see something different? One notable factoid: Every Zombie Round matchup but one has thus far been won by the shorter book.1 Will Julie and Sam shake this dominance up?

Since there have only been eight Zombies (10 including this year’s undead), there aren’t too many other trends that are pronounced enough for me to suggest they might impact this year’s results. So instead, I thought I’d again pick up a little on Kevin and John’s commentary and offer up some hard facts about past winners not of our Tournament, but of some other book prizes. I’ve compiled some data about the last five years (i.e., the period the Tournament has been running) of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, the Man Booker, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the PEN/Faulkner award. I looked at both winners and finalists/shortlisted titles, as I thought it might be interesting to compare those numbers to the books that have reached the Semifinals or Zombie Rounds in the Tournament of Books.

The National Book Award for fiction has gone exclusively to men over the past five years, while the PEN/Faulkner has been won just once by a woman. The Man Booker and the Pulitzer Prize, on the other hand, has seen three women each take the trophy home, while the National Book Critics Circle has awarded three men and two women. The shortlisted titles even out things in the Pulitzer and the N.B.C.C., and cut in just a bit to the male dominance in the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner, and tip the Man Booker to favoring men.

Prize Male Winners Female Winners Male Finalists Female Finalists Total Percentage Male
N.B.C.C. 3 2 10 10 52.00%
Pulitzer 2 3 6 4 53.33%
Man Booker 2 3 16 9 60.00%
PEN/Faulkner 4 1 12 8 64.00%
Tournament of Books 3 2 17 9 64.52%
National Book Award 5 0 12 8 68.00%

As you can see, the Tournament of Books is not the most gender-balanced of the prizes, but it’s fairly close to most of them, with the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award being the most balanced, the National Book Award (no surprise there, really), being the least.

Page length has been another variable of interest for us throughout this year’s Tournament, and the data for average page length of all winners and finalists provides some intriguing observations:

Prize Winners’ Average Pages Finalists’ Average Pages
Man Booker 317.80 380.36
National Book Award 623.40 301.95
N.B.C.C. 491.60 389.15
PEN/Faulkner 291.60 292.05
Pulitzer 275.40 292.05
Tournament of Books 490.54 318.00

The difference between the average page length of the winners and the average page length of the finalists (not including the winners) is huge for the National Book Award—in fact, the longest book in the field has won every year for the past five years, which is just kind of bizarre. But the difference for the N.B.C.C. award and for the Rooster is pretty substantial as well, and the Pulitzer and Man Booker show a marked preference for shorter books. The PEN/Faulkner, on the other hand, is uncannily close—winners and finalists are virtually identical, page-count-wise.

The beefy page count of the past five National Book Award winners and the relatively petite size of the past five Pulitzers got me to wondering if this has been pretty much the case throughout the awards’ history. I broke down average page count by decade for the winners.

Decade Average Pulitzer Page Count Average N.B.A. Page Count
1910-1919 418 N/A
1920-1929 357.111111 N/A
1930-1939 466.1 N/A
1940-1949 491 N/A
1950-1959 435.125 483.1
1960-1969 382.333333 310.5
1970-1979 429.571429 417.307692
1980-1989 432.3 369.214286
1990-1999 363.4 356.2
2000-2009 361.4 495
Total 411.313253 403.61194

Unfortunately, there aren’t any sharp trends to speak of, although I think it is notable that over time, the two biggest American prizes have gone to books of approximately the same size—just a little over 400 pages. Only the first decade of the National Book Award saw an entire decade average under 350 pages, and no decade so far has had an average go above 500 pages. Something to keep in mind when you’re plotting your next book, I guess—if you want to win awards, shoot for this range.

As far as publishers go, these five prizes all pretty much support what we have found in the Rooster field: Among shortlisted titles, the Big Three of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Random House, and Knopf dominate, dividing almost 36 percent of all Pulitzer finalists, Man Booker shortlisted titles, etc., among them. On the other hand, 34 different publishing houses have gotten one or more of their titles onto one of these five prizes, an average of almost seven a year, although that’s not very impressive at all when the number of finalist slots for these five prizes is 19. Seven different publishers out of 19 possible? Ouch. To compare, out of 26 Semifinalists or Zombies over the past five years, the Tournament of Books has brought 14 different publishing houses to the party. Definite progress, there.

Well, now it’s time for the real Final Four—the Zombie and the Championship Rounds. I hope you’ve enjoyed these sidebars to the real action of the Tournament, and I hope they haven’t lost you any money, pride, or gloating privileges. Best of luck in the remaining brackets!

1The only Zombie matchup resulting in a longer book winning was last yearCity of Refuge (403 pages) knocking out The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (345 pages).

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.

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