March 7, 2011

The Pre-Game Primer


Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John: Greetings Kevin, welcome readers—it’s time for the Seventh Annual Tournament of Books, the only book award that admits to its own ridiculousness. The matchups start tomorrow, so today we’re tasked with setting the scene for what should be our best tournament ever. Why is it going to be the best ever, you ask? Because every year is the best tournament ever.

I’d like to note a few items out of the gate. One, I’ve read 14 and a half out of 16 books this year, a new personal best. Don’t hold your applause.

Field NotesBuy anything from Field Notes from now until the end of the ToB and receive a special “reading list” memo book free, while they last. Use coupon code ROOSTER.

Two, in the wake of VIDA’s widely discussed survey of books published and books reviewed, as well as the (ToB Judge) Jennifer Weiner-led Franzenfreude movement, with our lineup we have exact gender parity, and the only thing it took to achieve it was recognizing that Lionel Shriver is a woman.

Three, I really, really like, and even love, some of these books. There are multiple first-round matchups where I’m absolutely torn, like when my TiVo recently broke and I had to choose between Community and Vampire Diaries. I’m so excited about this list of books and our judges that I could go on and on, but I’m hogging the mic, so over to you, Kevin Guilfoile.

Kevin: You did a little better than me. As of this writing I have read 12 of the books and parts of two others. And, like you, I am probably as excited about this group of novels than any of the previous six ToB lineups. This was a really good year of reading for me, and the ToB finalists reflect the joy I’ve felt while sitting in my favorite chair these last 12 months, or at least the joy that hasn’t been immediately preceded by the words “Wii Lego.”

As you point out, we were all pretty pleased that we had achieved complete gender parity without even trying. We endured the four-day angry drum circle in which the final 16 books are chosen each year, and when we counted it all up, we had exactly eight male writers and eight female writers. “Hooray for us!” we shouted. Then we looked again and discovered that the list was also whiter than the 20 lb. Hammermill on which FOX News prints the viewer demographics for Huckabee With Mike Huckabee. We don’t even have an Italian!

Will we be criticized for this? Certainly. Should we be criticized for this? Probably. As we are fond of saying, there are dozens and dozens of books that are worthy of the shortlist, and some of those were written by African-Americans and Asians and on and on. We could have gone back to the longlist and found a few titles to make the shortlist more ethnically diverse. That would mean bumping someone off. And if we bumped a woman, would that mean we had to replace her with an Asian woman? Or if we removed a male writer, would we have to find an African-American male author? It seemed like any attempt to manage the list in such a way was contrary to the very arbitrary spirit of the ToB. Maybe we need a gay writer. Or maybe we already have one. Maybe all the authors on this year’s list are gay. I have almost no idea, which is kind of the point, for better or worse. And so when you let fly those particular arrows I will likely not try to defend our position, but rather just nod my head grimly. Nevertheless, I think we could do some soul-searching when it comes time to make up next year’s shortlist. Maybe we need to expand (as well as diversify) the number of deciders.

Come to think of it, I’m not even sure who all the deciders are.

I was trying to find a theme that loosely connected this year’s finalists (last year, for instance, was heavy with historical fiction) and I think I found it in the aftermatter of Teddy Wayne’s excellent Kapitoil. He describes that book, which is set in 1999, as a “pre-9/11 novel.” Which means not just that the story takes place before that day, but that it intentionally avoids the political and emotional anxieties of the last decade.

Many other books on this list do face those anxieties, however. Not all of them take 9/11 head-on (although at least one does) but many of them deal with the event as subtext. This shouldn’t be at all surprising, of course, but this is the first year where I really felt these similar themes of post-millennial anxiety popping up in book after book.

John: Maybe this is one of the reasons I’m so excited about this year’s list. Taken collectively, these books feel like a snapshot of a corner turned, and, as you note, many of them are infused with what it’s been like to live through the last decade. So Much for That is even more timely, since it’s the Great American Healthcare Novel, and takes up issues of class divide and wealth. Room is ripped from the headlines. Bad Marie and Savages could be. Nox causes us to examine what we even mean by saying something is a “book” or a “novel.” Super Sad True Love Story and Freedom could comfortably switch titles. Even Kaptioil, though it’s set in 1999, takes on current hot topics of Wall Street and financial arbitrage.

Are we missing something by not having a historical powerhouse like Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2009 champion) or Philip Roth’s Plot Against America (2005 runner-up)? Probably, but this list feels pretty right for right now.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t also discuss some of the exciting news on the judge front. First, we have Catherine George, the winner of our reader judge contest, who gets to weigh in on The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake v. Bloodroot. We also have what I think is a real coup, Jennifer Weiner. Anyone who keeps up with Weiner’s blog knows she can bring it.

Kevin: It’s a formidable group with a formidable task—deciding which of this year’s contenders has the tiger blood and the Adonis DNA to take home the Rooster. We should mention that for the duration of the tourney, if you place any order with Tournament of Books sponsor Field Notes, be sure to enter the code ROOSTER to receive your free, special edition, ToB memo book, while supplies last.

John: Also, our longtime friend and supporter Powell’s is once again offering a 30 percent discount on each of the 16 books in competition. Not only that, they are offering the same discount on four 2010 books by TMN contributors which are ineligible for the tournament: Rosecrans Baldwin’s You Lost Me There; Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall; Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report; and your very own recent release, The Thousand.

Let me also put in a plug for an unofficial contest being run by Tournament of Books aficionado, Hungry Like the Woolf, where you can win actual prizes, which may or may not involve classic Duran Duran singles.

Kevin: It all gets serious tomorrow when Sarah Manguso must choose between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil.

Secure your rear-facing car seats, babies. The ToB minivan is backing up.

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