Last year, readers of the web magazine The Morning News submitted their favorite fiction titles from 2007. The top 16 were selected to compete in the site's fourth annual running of the books, better known as the Tournament of Books. It started a few weeks back with a crowded field, packed with well-known favorites and dark horse contenders. In each "match" a single judge read both books, then picked a favorite to advance to the next round. ToB 'commissioners' weighed in from the 'sidelines' and an informal straw poll allowed the unwashed masses to have their say. There were brackets and even betting (for charity). It's no accident they do this during March Madness.
As always, there were some surprises. Marianne Wiggins' The Shadow Catcher made it all the way to the semi-finals, Then We Came To An End took out the National Book Award-winner, and judge, Elizabeth Kiem dismissed Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives in just a couple sentences. That sent judge and Elegant Variation blogger, Mark Sarvas, into a state, and caused him to drop Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (which Kiem had preferred over BolaBolañoo) the very next round.
Whether you agree with any of these calls is kind of beside the point. Kiem's comments on why she chose Vida over Bolaño ("[T]hese days, I?m all about immediate gratification and simple pleasures") really get to the heart of what makes the ToB worth following. Bolaño's novel is a sprawling, exhilarating read, but it's not everyone's cup of tea, and certainly nobody's idea of a "simple pleasure." In any other award horse race, an imposing monolith like The Savage Detectives would probably run the table, because the group-think of awards committees tends to gravitate toward gravitas. Remember how PISSED people were with that 2004 National Book Awards shortlist? There's an expectation that the "big" awards are somehow supposed to judge a book's "importance." But what's enjoyable about following the ToB is that importance is one criterion among many others.
Another innovative wrinkle of the TOB is that it allows the peanut gallery to pipe up at exactly the right moment. In any other competition on earth, the battle-scarred semi-final victors (Then We Came to the End and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) would saunter into their championship match. But no, the Tournament of Books has its Zombie round, in which two reader-favorites are resurrected and pitted against the semi-final winners. That means an undefeated book can be unseated in the final moments of the competition, which happened with Tom McCarthy's Remainder coming back from the dead to defeat the collective "We" of Ferris's novel. Diaz still has to face a resurrected Bolaño (what a match-up!) before the final match next week.
The ToB has a bit of fun with the inherent absurdity of literary awards, picking one book over another is always going to be an apples, oranges, and personal taste proposition. Instead of holding the judging behind closed doors in a smoke-filled room, why not make a spectacle of such an absurd process? This talk of public spectacles and smoke-filled rooms begs the question: why don't the presidential primaries work more like the ToB? Maybe Kung Fu Election wasn't so out of left field. Well, perhaps not, since it seems like the democratic side is already stuck in its own protracted "zombie" round. In any case, my attention is wandering. What's great about the ToB is that it gets people talking, and reading, and arguing, and hopefully reading some more.
The final round is today, March 31, 2008. Visit The Morning News to find out what happens next.