Well, well, well. The Tournament of Books. We meet again.
A couple of weeks ago, the folks at The Morning News announced the finalists and judges for this year’s contest, and, as is my habit, I’ve got a some pre-game thoughts about it. Just before the the Tournament gets under way, I’ll offer my full odds for the finalists, but for now, it’s pre-game analysis.
Over the summer, I took a mid-year stab at predicting the finalists and I didn’t do too badly, guessing 9 correctly at that stage. The ToB folks revealed the final list before I had a chance to update my guesses, but I had already drawn up my revised list, which included swapping Building Stories for Are You My Mother? and adding The Round House by Louise Erdrich (which gets an auto-bid for winning the National Book Award) for Half-Blood Blues.
I mention this for two reasons. First, I want to brag that I got 11 titles right. Second, to highlight that as huge as the ocean of literature that comes out in a given year seems, opinion and interest does tend to coalesce around certain titles. And you can, if you pay attention, feel it.
Alright, let’s do some “likes” and “don’t likes.”
9 Things I l Like About The 2013 Tournament of Books Finalists and Judges
In no particular order:
- While The Fault in Our Stars wasn’t a tough inclusion, I’m glad to see a bona fide YA title in the field. I also am looking forward to the judges’ discussion of it, as it’s damn hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about it. YA titles don’t get the same kind of critical discussion that straight lit fic titles do, so that’s one of the many things I am looking forward to here.
- In a twist for this year, there is a pre-Tournament playoff round that will pit (in a structure that has yet to be revealed) three novels about the Iraq war against each other. I’d still prefer a “readers’ choice” slot, but this three-way play-in should be really interesting. The books are quite different, so choosing one will be difficult. Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk feels like it has the momentum, but it may not matter, depending on how they put this thing together.
- Good gender balance. 9 of the 18 are women.
- Formal diversity. We get a comic novel, a memoir, short stories, historical fiction, war novels, a novel in translation, and whatever you want to call Building Stories.
- Speaking of Building Stories, we should call this the “Anne Carson” slot, as “Nox” carved out a niche in the Tournament for a truly genre-defying work. Love that it’s here.
- Munro. If you were to draw up a list of the writers in English that write the most beautiful sentences, Munro would be in the top 10 for sure, and maybe get to wear the crown. The quiet, sharp, and startling crown. She also is not read as often as I would like, probably because her preferred form is the short story, which aren’t as popular as novels. This is neither fair or unfair–just the way it is. I bet there is someone out there writing outrageously good villanelles, but no one is interested.
- Big name omissions. Chabon. Eggers. Irving. Ford. You don’t get in on track record alone here, which I like.
- Genre-ish author judges. Yu and Grossman write sort of deconstructed genre, which seems to be the spirit of the year. (note to gamblers: beware straight literary fiction. Hasn’t won in a while, and will be a while before it does.)
- Ron Hogan. I called for a blogger-judge a couple of years ago, this one in particular. Hogan is more of an establishment guy these days, but good to have him in the field.
5 Things I Don’t Like About the Tournament of Books Finalists and Judges.
- White out. I love this event, and I really admire the folks that run it. But in this day and age, you can’t have 17 white people out of 18, (and that’s putting Erdrich in the “non-white” category, which is really so much more complicated than that). You. Cannot. Do. It. No amount of explanation that “we don’t think in terms of race when we do this” or “our conversations and selections are not meant to be definitive” gets you out of this. One of the slynesses of prejudice is that we people of good will don’t feel our prejudices. The only response is to be on the watch for them.
- War novel ghetto. I like the play-in, but I am not so sure that clustering them around the war novel is a great way to go about it. Hell, I’d rather have a play-in of the award winners that get auto-loaded every year (this year Round House, Song of Achilles, and Bring Up the Bodies).
- Morrison not even on the long-list. Nobel prize winner and former ToB winner doesn’t even get on the long-list. Rough.
- Yawn-fest judges. Is there some hat of “contributed to The Atlantic” and “has an MFA from” and “is the author of” that the fat middle of the judge selection gets picked out of? And is that hat flammable? Many people love books, and I don’t think some connection to the writing world is a necessity here. There have been off-beat selections before, but not this year. Even the reader-judge is a dentist (though I bet he will be great. Still, last year’s reader-judge was IN PRISON).
- No Diaz. Quibbling about particular titles isn’t really what this is about, but Diaz is so good and his latest so interesting and damn discussable that I wanted it here. I haven’t read all the finalists (though I will by game-time), so I am not going to make a particular selection for what it should replace, but it’s the one book I was genuinely hoping to see.
- Favorites: Gone Girl, The Fault in Our Stars
- Dark Horses: May We Be Forgiven, The Orphan Master’s Son
- Early Exits: Beautiful Ruins, How Should a Person Be?
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