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2012 Tournament of Books Commentary: Episode 3

Morgan Macgregor

Staff Writer

Morgan Macgregor is a reader living in Los Angeles. She reviews fiction and is working on her first novel.

JO: Well, we were going to try to wait until after the first round was complete before another episode of this here commentary, but……we couldn’t hold back. So much to discuss in the last three matches that we were afraid we’d forget to catch something later on.

That said, there hasn’t been an upset since our last dispatch, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t ripe, dripping, juicy stuff to talk about. For those who just looked at the brackets and didn’t consider the judges, The Sisters Brothers taking out State of Wonder might have looked like an upset. But we knew better didn’t we, Macgregor?

MM: Holla! As Wheaton himself acknowledged, The Sisters Brothers is basically catnip for a certain kind of reader (the kind of reader that he happens to be), and for that group, the anti-catnip would have to be Ann Patchett. That’s not to say that there isn’t an in-between reader, the one who reads semi-widely, is fairly critical, and enjoyed both novels though didn’t love either of them (that’s me); it’s just that if you REALLY REALLY LOVED The Sisters Brothers, I bet you didn’t like State of Wonder.

JO: That’s an awesome idea for a game. If you HATED this book, I bet you would LOVE this one. In this particular match, I almost feel like the ToB stacked the deck against State of Wonder. I like thinking about the judges, but in this case the judge assignment was almost too on the nose. I would have like to see Wheaton judge two nerd books or maybe too lit fic books.

MM. For me, considering the judges is the funnest part of the ToB. Spending too much time focusing on the books disregards the fundamental fact of the contest: for each match-up, there is only ONE individual judge, with an entirely personal reading history, a career that falls on a completely different point on the Writer spectrum, and a singularly unique taste in terms of style and content. There’s the Zombie Round, of course, so it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of what readers are saying about the books, but I like to think of the ToB essentially as a game of Apples To Apples between the judges – Who’s the most convincing? Who throws their whole person into it, and who attempts to be “objective”? Who admits to their biases, and how, and where in the process do they do it, and is that a part of their strategy?

JO: The other underrated part of the Tournament is watching people bash their heads against subjectivity in the comments section on each decision. Some are completely agog at the prospect that ANYONE IN THE WORLD could possibly like a book they hated or the converse. I’m not above bristling when someone criticizes a book I love, but I know in my heart of hearts that there is no objective basis for it. And over-hearing people voice their disbelief at how wrong other people are is just too much fun.

Anyway, back to more pressing matters. Since Bethanne Patrick is on the masthead here at Book Riot, we are going to abstain from talking about her judging directly, but neither of us thought that The Stranger’s Child really had a chance against The Tiger’s Wife. In the official commentary, though, John Warner notes that historical fiction does well consistently in the ToB. Why do you think that might be?

MM: Personally, I have no idea. I’m not a fan of historical fiction, though I tend to consider this a weakness on my part. That said, I enjoyed The Stranger’s Child as much as someone with this particular blind spot could be expected to. I really don’t know what draws readers to historical fiction  – The sense of total escape? The rendering of a world long gone? – but, like American Idol fans, those readers are everywhere. (I’m not comparing historical fiction to American Idol, but I am saying that both have a wide, diverse, and dedicated following that is completely befuddling to me.) I remember the feeling of total alienation last year when everyone was raving about Parrot and Olivier in America, and I could not, for the life of me, read this book.

I think you hit my reading nerve. You have any thoughts on this one?

JO: Whatever it is, I think it’s related to the strong correlation between book nerds and Downton Abbey fans. You might be on to something with the “total world” theory. Perhaps historical fiction gives literary fiction nerds the same kind of buzz a regular readers gets from Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but with a baseline of history that, I don’t want to say excuses, but maybe “authorizes” the escapist nature of it. Of course, now there isn’t any historical fiction left, so let’s move on.

Haven Kimmel’s judging of the Swamplandia!/The Cat’s Table tilt was almost exactly how I thought it would be: Cat’s Table is lean and beautiful with a bad ending and Swamplandia! is kinetic, playful, and mesmerizing. But the crux of her judgment was what “happened”: in The Cat’s Table not too much happens and in Swamplandia! a bunch of stuff happens. This was also the main beef Wil Wheaton had with State of Wonder….nothing much happens for long stretches where in The Sisters Brothers something happens every few pages to the point that the end is almost (unintentionally, I think) a parody if how Westerns wrap up. As you might imagine, my literary fiction fanboy does not like the “stuff happening” crutch in arguing the merits of a book. In State of Wonder, the action might slow down, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things going on with the characters themselves. In The Sisters Brothers, so much happens that the characters seem flat as the Texas panhandle.

MM: Oh man. Some of my favorite novels are ones in which almost nothing at all “happens.” Nicholson Baker comes to mind. Last year, I hosted a book club for Matthew Sharpe’s You Were Wrong, which I think is an incredible novel, and many of my guests seemed to take up this issue. “Like, okay, I see what he’s trying to do here, but when is something going to happen?” I tend to value the prose over the action of a story because I often feel that the prose is the action.

I have to disclose, at this point, that I didn’t really like Swamplandia! or The Cat’s Table. I found The Cat’s Table to be boring and rather fusty. And while I had insanely high hopes for Swamplandia! (based on the fact that I absolutely adored Russell’s collection), I found it boring in its own way, and frustrating to read. It took the creepy mysticism of the short story on which it was based, and drew it out into something far too brightly lit, for me at least. Does that make sense? While reading it, I kept saying to myself, “No! No! Don’t tell us that! Don’t give it all away!” That said, I still admire the novel far more than The Cat’s Table, because I can’t think of another one like it, and it contains some sections of absolutely stunning writing.

JO: I like that comment about Swamplandia! being “too brightly lit;” it resonates with me and captures a bit of my frustration with it. On the other hand, you seemed to find The Cat’s Table “too dimly lit,” which I can definitely see. I prefer it, but am consistently a sucker for novels of memory.

This dim/bright comparison is part of a larger pattern we are seeing emerge (and it emerges almost every year):  judges saying something along the lines of “These two books are so different it doesn’t even feel like they should be in the same tournament.” In the 1Q84/The Last Brother match, Misha Angrist puts it this way: “To compare these two books is completely unfair and inappropriate. Sure, a Great Dane and a beagle are both dogs—with some careful choreography they could indeed mate and reproduce.”

I like the dog metaphor, though I think the more appropriate canine analogy is not could they mate, but which you would have as a pet. Ultimately, Angrist’s decision for 1Q84 mirrors my own thinking: I want the big, flawed, ambitious, crazy, world-destroying book. And you know why? Because those are the kinds that can change the way we see the world. The Last Brother is accomplished, but I could read 20 of these and not match the diversity, force, and wonder in 1Q84.

MM: I could not agree more. For the very same reason, I admire the hell out of Swamplandia!, which I believe is a game changer, even though I didn’t really like the novel. I’m probably contradicting myself, because I talk a big game about nothing mattering more than the finished product, the actual words on the page,  but I do believe there are exceptions to this rule, 1Q84 and Swamplandia! being two examples. Both of them are flawed, no doubt, but they are also wonderfully inventive, boundary-pushing novels that drop like bombs onto the publishing world and say, “HERE. PUT THIS IS YOUR PIPE AND SMOKE IT,” and that’s something I can get behind.

Regarding the “unfairness” of some of the match-ups: touche. But is an incongruous match-up any less “fair” than leaving the judging of any two books to any one person? Nature of the game, baby!

JO: Right, as if there were some categorically “fairer” way of adjudicating taste. It’s like having a competition to see who can drink the ocean the fastest and complaining that the provided spoons are too small: ain’t no tool that can fix the underlying limitations.

Alright, let’s call that good for now. Next time, we’ll catch up with the last matches of Round 1 and look forward to Round 2.