A Little Jousting at the Tournament of Books

soccermomThe Tournament of Books is off and running with a rousing opener, complete with intrigue, insults, and innuendo—who could ask for more? Each year the ToB opens with a pre-Tournament playoff round, a kind of throat-clearing to get readers in the groove, let them dust off their commenting IDs, and prepare everyone to sling a little literary dirt. This year, we had Geraldine Brooks weighing in on two hand-picked books, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely. No spoilers, but I will say that I think I may have finally been swayed over to the Atkinson, after months of staying away due to the excess of love heaped on it by nearly all my reading friends. Not to mention the fact that, due to Harold Ramis’s untimely death, I just saw Groundhog Day for the 800th time. But I’m not immune to suggestion, and Brooks’s reluctant pleasure in it is awfully convincing.

But wait, there’s more. Early in the commentary—and if you’re not reading the Comments section you’re missing much of the fun—someone turned up a Facebook post by Scott McClanahan, author of the opening round’s contender Hill William, in which he says:

I am resigning Hill William from the tourney of books. I am sorry to say so. But fuck me. Soccer Moms are still idiots. I have resigned from the judging.

Since McClanahan isn’t a judge in the Tournament, I can only guess he wants his book withdrawn. But since that round is happening tomorrow, and since Rachel Fershleiser, the judge in question, has not only gone and read Hill William but also Eleanor Catton’s massive The Luminaries—a significant investment of time and reading energy—I’m guessing it’s going to go ahead as planned.

But really, what exactly is his point here? Other than alienating most of the female childbearing population—he slings some shit at Oprah, too—I’m not quite sure what McClanahan’s trying to achieve, other than stirring the pot. The time to back out would have been, oh, three months ago. And if he’s angling at being the Tournament of Books’s John le Carré—is that a clever reference to Catton’s Man Booker win for The Luminaries?—he’s going about it all wrong.

If nothing else, this all guarantees a lot of hits tomorrow from dedicated ToB followers, if only to see how it plays out. If the book were up against something I liked less than Catton’s, I’d want to see it win just for spite—and being able to say that with a straight face is just one of many reasons to love this particular contest. But I do hope McClanahan speaks up. C’mon Scott, it’s virtual. You’re safe. Nobody’s going to run you over with her minivan, promise.


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