The Tournament of Books: Neither Fair nor Balanced, Which is Why We Like It

The drama that is the Tournament of Books is ratcheting ever tighter, with the Semifinals recently finished and the Zombie Round about to start.

It’s such a paean to taste, the ToB. I’ve had a few discussions lately where people have accused it of being silly, of holding up such apples-and-oranges books against each other as to render the whole thing frivolous—I think Lowboy vs. The Help was mentioned, although I thought Andrew Womack’s analysis was almost ridiculously even-handed, and The Help went on to the Quarterfinals. But that frivolity is exactly what I love about it, because aren’t all of these competitions ridiculous at heart? (I know, Laura Miller covered this point in Salon a lot more articulately already.) I’ve heard some stories about the deliberations that go on behind the scenes at some of the big awards—in vague and nonspecific terms, don’t worry—and they don’t always sound a lot more objective than Andrew W.K. picking Wolf Hall because it intimidated him more than The Book of Night Women.

Although sure, Marlon James has every reason to be annoyed about that being the main criteria. Then again, he could also take it as a compliment that his book made Andrew W.K. get out the thesaurus (“The Book of Night Women featured a colloquially detailed and passionately hermetic version of the English language that was as much musical as it was emotive”). Likewise, if I were Colum McCann I might be the teensiest bit pissed that Let the Great World Spin lost out to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna at least partly because the physical book was less attractive. Then again, he already won the National Book Award, and you can’t win everything. Then again Wolf Hall seems to be winning everything anyway, and I can’t even be snarky about that because I thought it really was a tour de force and deserves every bit of praise being heaped on it.

But that’s how people form their opinions about books in the real world, when they aren’t pretending to hold any kind of fair or balanced opinions. They like the cover, or the book makes them feel a bit smarter for having read it, or they had a great book club discussion that night, or it reminds them of the person who gave it to them. Or it was just good. Or any combination of those. And that’s how people pick their books in the first place; it’s wildly subjective and serendipitous. In Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner’s commentary after the Wolf Hall vs. The Anthologist tourney, Warner briefly offered up his services as a book matchmaker, inviting commenters to provide him with their last five titles read wherein he would give a suggestion for their next one. The ensuing free-for-all was some fun reading in a strictly voyeuristic way, and I was sorry to see it end. Really, John Warner could hand out a shingle: Book Yenta.

There’s that urban legend—or maybe it’s true—of the Miss America contestant whose talent was packing a suitcase. If it did happen, I’m sure she lost to a tap dancer or ventriloquist, and how sad is that? Packing a suitcase is the one thing a Miss America probably needs to do well. Although maybe she just wasn’t pretty enough. In the end, the Tournament of Books is returning a pretty pedestrian contest. Unless one of the Zombie Round books breaks out (Nami Mun’s Miles from Nowhere, Bill Cotter’s Fever Chart), it’ll be The Lacuna vs. Wolf Hall, at which point the celebrity death match isn’t really terribly exciting, to be honest. But getting there? Getting there was a lot of fun, and you can bet I’ll be there next March, hoping for some good weird competition.

(Like Fire’s Known connections to The Tournament of Books: Lisa Peet has The Morning NewsIf a bird can’t fly it walks bumper sticker on her very old car. The above photo is allegedly of TMN founders Rosecrans Baldwin and Andrew Womack.)

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5 Comments to The Tournament of Books: Neither Fair nor Balanced, Which is Why We Like It

  1. March 31, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    There’s that urban legend—or maybe it’s true—of the Miss America contestant whose talent was packing a suitcase.

    Well, the magic of Google pulls up an article — “Miss America is ‘Suitcase Scientist’” — that appeared in the Lexington, North Carolina Dispatch 39 years ago this very month.

    In it, Miss America 1971 — the renowned Phyllis George — sums it all up by saying, “DON’T OVERPACK.”

  2. Amy's Gravatar Amy
    March 31, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    I love the ToB. I was a bit surprised at the vehemence against Andrew WK’s judging. I thought he wrote a really fun piece about “weighty”, “important” books, but so many others viewed it as another cover judgment. But yeah, I’m definitely cynical enough to believe that the “real” tournaments engage in some of this, away from public eyes.

  3. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    March 31, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Many good readers enjoy this Tournament but I am not one of them, despite having mega credentials in the reader world. I simply don’t get it. It must be a congenital condition — I am lacking (or, perhaps not!) the DNA than enables appreciation of the ToB. Truth to tell, I likewise unable to feel bereft; just shrug my shoulders in an elaborate French roll and carry on bemused.

  4. PatD's Gravatar PatD
    April 3, 2010 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    The Tournament of Books: Neither Fair nor Balanced, Which is Why We Like It

    AKA Lisa Peet’s application to join next year’s judging panel.

    And if you’re reading this John Warner, I can’t think of a better nominee.

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