2012 Tournament of Books Commentary: Episode 4

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

MM: Ah! I’m starting to get that day-after-Christmas feeling already. It’s always at around this time in the ToB (the end of the Quarterfinals) that I start to think, “No no no, it’s going too fast! It’s going to be over soon!” I know that’s ridiculous, but yesterday’s addition of Morning News and Rooster co-founder Rosecrans Baldwin to the commentator booth only added to my preemptive nostalgia for this year’s tournament. Meanwhile, everyone I know is talking about basketball and I have no idea what they’re saying.

JO: Like the basketball tournament, the first round of The Rooster is the best round. Weird matchups, more books, and wild possibilities. Now, things are starting to take shape and some of the mystery is gone.

MM: Anyway, on to the meaty stuff. Can I just say that the DeWitts are killing it?! I really didn’t think Lightning Rods stood a chance against some of these heavyweights, and look! It took out the Man Booker winner! Clearly I underestimated the judges, or at least underestimated the extent to which they share my reading tastes. And now The Sisters Brothers takes out Swamplandia!. Damn. I’m naming my first child DeWitt.

JO: Here’s the thing that we know about trying to predict this thing: it really is more about the judges than the books. As you noted, Lightning Rods got a favorable judge in the first round and in the second round as well, it turned out. I can only imagine that the wistful, old man schtick in The Sense of the Ending is not exactly what you are looking for if you are knocking out a 12-month stretch in minimum security.

MM: I know we don’t need to beat this whole art vs. entertainment/literary vs. non-literary thing into the ground, but I’d like to get your opinion on something, Jeff. Why is The Marriage Plot roundly considered “not serious?” Because it’s about a love triangle? Let me say that I think Edith Zimmerman is the funniest, most ass-kicking judge so far (and describing The Marriage Plot as a secret Battle Royale-style “Fuck Marry Kill” is probably my new favorite thing to say), but she hates on the novel in a way that I’m sort of sick of reading about. What’s so unliterary about the book?! Help me, please. Explain this.

JO: I think when people say “literary” they mean, in a way, “stylized.” I use that in a very broad sense in that you can have not only stylized prose but also “stylized” plot and characters. In that way, The Marriage Plot is pretty conventional, so it’s harder to see it as “literary” in way that Swamplandia! or 1Q84 seems literary.

This brings me to my biggest “kick-my-own-ass” realization: I should not have overlooked 1Q84 as much as I did. I penalized it too much for length and undervalued how it fit into a sort of pattern of Rooster winners as being idiosyncratic in “literary” ways. The thing that made me devalue The Art of Fielding and The Tiger’s Wife (good, but not exciting) should have made me see what 1Q84 could do. If you look at past winners, they are still things that people read now, much like 1Q84 will be read in 3, 5, 10 years. That’s not going to be true of some of these.

MM: In The Art of Fielding vs. Open City matchup, judge Kang seemed to take serious issue with Harbach’s inability to represent baseball in some way that resonates with him (he’s a huge baseball fan himself). He says, “Harbach very much seems to be pining for a style of baseball that no longer exists, and, while this is certainly his right as an author, what was missing the most from The Art of Fielding was some engagement with the way the game is played today.” I know you’re not so hot on the novel yourself, but I wonder how you feel about this criticism. For me, the book isn’t about baseball at all, or at least it’s only peripherally about baseball. It’s about that youthful, soul-devouring pursuit of perfection, and the inevitable realization that you’re not going to be the best at something, you’re not going to be #1, in anything, ever. It’s about how this realization shapes the rest of your life. Did I read the wrong book? Why don’t I care that the baseball aspects were apparently not realistic?

JO: I follow baseball a bit, and I think what Kang was objecting to was the romanticization of baseball–that is the “art” rather than say “skill” or “craft” of baseball. I think you’re right, though, that Kang didn’t seem to identify how much the book was about disillusionment and nostalgia, so this depiction of baseball makes perfect sense. It’s a bit of a case where a reader’s particular expertise can break the suspension of disbelief; if I know more about some place, behavior, or practice than you do, it makes it hard for me to stay invested in the book. (This is why I hate all books about being awesome.)

MM: I’m disappointed that The Tiger’s Wife is out (though the Deathless Man lives on!) but all will be redeemed if Lightning Rods takes out 1Q84. Seriously: if this happens, I will have a party. Everyone will be invited. Every person, ever.

JO: You have to give it a puncher’s chance. I sort of hope it wins just so people who just read the winner will think someone pulled a prank on them.

MM: I’d say that the judging in the past two rounds (Oscar Villalon and Missy Mazzoli – two pretty awesome names, by the way) have been the most “readerly” of the tournament thus far, inasmuch as they both seemed to say, in a nutshell: “These novels were a joy to read, but one of them was more of a joy, and will stay with me longer. Period.” I found it interesting that Rosecrans Baldwin said, “Frankly, I  find the Rooster book assessments and discussions more interesting than the majority of book reviews. I don’t know if it’s some new form of reviewing, but it’s something.” 

JO: The names are great, right? I keep thinking they are characters from a Tom Robbins novel. Here’s a branch off that “stay with me longer” comment. How do they know? Maybe I am the exception, but I find it difficult to predict what books are going to stay with me, or even what part of books I love are going to stick. For example, there is one line in The Iliad, my favorite literary work of all time, that somehow got stuck in my mind and I come to over and over (Achilles to Phoenix: “Be king equally with me”) where the dozens of affecting endings I’ve read over the years seem to melt away.

MM: Finally (and you can feel free to disagree with me here), I’d like to give a special shoutout to commentator Kevin Guilfoile for saying this, regarding the Ruth Fowler kerfuffle: “Just this one time, when deciding who really has no clothes, I’m going with the stripper.” 

I’m nominating this as Best Line of the ToB (for now).

JO: Good line indeed. But I’m about as interested in thinking about the value of MFAs as I am in eating at the buffet of a stripclub.