Tournament of Books: Week 1 Commentary

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.

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.

Jeff O’Neal and Morgan Macgregor are both huge Tournament of Books fans. So, they decided to read all the finalists and do some running commentary as the tournament progresses. Check back weekly for our obsessive coverage. 


JO: Just two matches to kick things off last week, but the story from our end is the Lightning Rods victory, which you saw coming. Binelli’s judging was sort of strange, but the crux of the decision was this: Salvage the Bones seemed too MFA-y and he admired DeWitt’s commitment to an absurd premise. I don’t know what you think, but this seems to me a classic example of how writers see things differently than readers. (My guess is that most common readers would pick Salvage the Bones.)

MM: There’s no doubt that it probably alienated a lot of readers that Binelli seemingly chose to reward effort rather than a finished product (or an MFA, which is a whole other debate). That’s certainly one of the most interesting things about the Tournament; some of the judges are writers, and some are not. Personally, I like that aspect of it, but I’m sure there’s another camp that takes issue with it. If I’m being completely honest, I would recommend Salvage the Bones to someone —  let’s say to a random person, the average reader, asking me for advice —  before Lightning Rods, but that’s only because I know my tastes tend towards the perverse and the absurd. I know “the average reader” is a rather absurd notion in itself, but there does seem to be one, and I wouldn’t hand her Lightning Rods. But (!)  if I were judging this round, and it were my job to choose which book I myself liked best, I’d have gone with with DeWitt, too. Binelli will probably get some backlash on the MFA-bashing, but ultimately he chose the book he liked best, which is, in the absence of any formal judging criteria, the definition of “judge.”

MM: Curious: what did you think of Lightning Rods?

JO: You know how some Saturday Night Live sketches get turned into movies and while you’re watching it you think “This was funny as a sketch, but not sure there’s enough for a whole movie”? That’s about how I felt. It seemed to me like one of the vignettes from The Decameron, just novel-length. Now, I thought it was interesting and readable in its own way, but I would have gone with Salvage the Bones, though it too has its problems, some of which I thought Binelli nailed (like say, being a bit heavy-handed at times).

JO: In the other match, Emma Straub picked The Sense of the Ending over Devil All The Time. Straub made it seem like it was closer than we might have thought, but at the end mentions how she hates conflict, so who knows if Devil All the Time really had any kind of shot. The key moment is when Straub wrote that she would be more likely to re-read The Sense of an Ending and that seemed to tip the scales finally toward Barnes. I think this is pretty interesting idea and one that many of us use to rank and evaluate narrative art.

MM: This one was so interesting to me, because I totally disagree with Straub’s rendering of The Devil All The Time as masterfully plotted. I think it’s rather a mess, though the writing itself is quite good. I see eye-to-eye with her on The Sense of An Ending, though, and experienced the same sort of resistance turning into utter surprise that she did. I’d say she took somewhat of a more “objective” approach to judging than Binelli, and I agree with her choice, but I’m a little dumbfounded that she would hand The Devil All The Time to every writer who thinks that plot is scary, as an example of how complicated and delicious novels can be.” I’d hand it to every writer who thinks they can do it all, as a prime example of a novelist trying to do just that, and failing. I too would read The Sense of An Ending again before I’d reread The Devil All the Time, but some of my very favorite books are ones I know I’ll never read again; they were like experiences that I lived through, that changed me, that I will remember forever, and that I never want to (or can’t) go back to. Like high school.

JO: I think the official Tournament commentary should also be on the table for us to discuss. Their analysis of the Ward/DeWitt match was mostly about why Salvage the Bones was initially overlooked by the critical establishment before its National Book Award win. In the main, John Warner suggested that critics value what they have read over what they haven’t (as do we all, except when it comes to Ulysses). The conventional logic goes like this: if critics don’t review books, readers don’t find them.

I think what we’re learning these days is that that is less and less true. I’m just not sure how much reviews in mainstream venues matter any more. Surely, they mean something, but my sense is that something means less and less. If there is a disconnect between what critics review and what wins awards, what do we make of the disconnect between both of those things and what people are actually reading (check out any bestseller list, save maybe the independent bookseller list)? It’s quite rare that there is any overlap between the critical/award complex and the common reader. Laura Miller claiming Harbach and Eugenides as popular picks is sort of like Obama saying he is closer to the common man than Mitt Romney—ain’t none of them close.

MM: I think it really depends on where you live. Over the holidays, I worked in a bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and I can say with confidence that almost every single customer who shops in that store both reads and avidly follows the Times reviews. We had each week’s edition hanging on the wall behind the counter, and were often asked to pull it down to a customer to refer to. Even more often, book buyers came in with snippets cut out from the paper, and they’d just hand it to us and say, “I want these books.” Then I came back to LA, where reviews are totally obsolete, sometimes laughably so. I really like what Kevin said: “What I really think has been lost as our collective books discussion migrates from newspapers and splinters into billions of little cubbies on the internet is a common book culture. Book coverage on the web is fantastic and rich, but on the internet (where you are your own gatekeeper) it’s also easy to wander around in some kind of Escher drawing made from one’s own tastes and biases.” That said, newspaper reviews are going to have to catch up to the rest of us, as it were, if they want to get back in the game (which I’d like them to). The “traditional” book review, published in the newspaper, is something that’s increasingly only relevant to isolated communities of readers, who perhaps have their own Escher drawing of tastes and biases.

JO: Well, an independent bookstore on the Upper East Side is probably as insulated from the main of contemporary literary culture as you can get. It’s like the 1970s up there. But, it does represent a segment of serious readers who depend on critics.

MM: We also need to define “critic,” here. Bloggers aren’t critics, nor are most of the people writing about books on the internet. That’s fine. But I think there is still a place for professional literary critics, and I think that they should indeed be driving our “collective books discussion.” I just think they need to broaden their scope, stop being lazy about the job they’re paid to do, and stop trying to pass off plot summaries as reviews.

JO: I’m not sure that we do need to define “critic.” I think we might just need to recognize that there are different ways of writing about books. I mean, we don’t need to define chicken to know that it’s different than popcorn; we can tell the difference as we experience it.

MM: Do you think that book culture on the internet is creating two “types” of readers? It seems to me there are readers who follow the blogs, follow the Indie awards, and generally look for interesting, under-the-radar stuff, and then there are people who read the newspaper, read the National Book Award and Pulitzer prize winners, and couldn’t even guess how many indie publishing houses we have in this country. Of course, you have the overlap – the small community of serious book bloggers and reviewers that do both – but it’s just that: small.

JO: Actually, I think the book internet is creating a third type of reader. Before, I think there were your NYT-following readers and then your more common reader who reads genre and commercial fiction. There was some overlap, but I think the web allows interested readers to avoid falling into either to the exclusion of everything else. Many of the people I know who are active online read literary fiction, YA, graphic novels, narrative non-fiction, and essay as part of their reading lives: I think that before the internet, it was extremely hard to be informed enough about these at the same time to keep up with them. Now, you can. Part of it is that you get review space online for YA and graphic novels that just doesn’t happen in mainstream media. If I have to choose between a common book culture and a fractured book culture that has people leading more diverse, fulfilling reading lives, I am going with the latter, though the former might be more fulfilling to me personally, since my reading habits would map rather neatly onto what once was mainstream book culture.