Thursday, December 16, 2010

The 2011 Tournament of Books Longlist: Handicapping the Field

There are many reasons I love following The Morning News’ Tournament of Books every year. 

For one, it is the most inclusive competitive award (meaning not top 10 list or the like), with writers coming from multiple countries. Second, it releases an extensive long list then a longer than average short list: this gives interested spectators a chance to do some pre-game reading and follow along. Third, the round-by-round judging is completely transparent; the judges explain their reasons for choosing the winner in each match. This offers a rare window into how informed, passionate people make decisions about why they like one book better than another. The results are sometimes frustrating, sometimes inspiring, but always revealing. 

There’s another reason I like the ToB: I’m pretty good at picking it. Since I began following it in 2006, I have picked the winner three times, though admittedly at the short list stage: The Road, A Mercy, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Now, if you’ve been paying attention to contemporary literature you’ll realize that these prognostications were not the work of Nostradamus: these winners were all widely read and lauded going into the tournament. 

So, if you’re interested in trying to predict the winner, that’s hint number one: you’ve already heard of the winner, and, if you are a reasonably serious reader of new fiction, there’s a good chance you’ve already read it. 

Here are a few other thoughts on this year’s long-list:

1.       The Favorites
So, if the winner is most-likely a big, established book, then who are the candidates? Well, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen has to be the dauphin at this point. Even though there was some relatively significant backlash, Freedom is appearing on virtually every end-of-year list and is the choice of many for book of the year (though some are admitting this somewhat sheepishly).

If Freedom is the number one overall seed, then Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is a close number two. The darling of independent booksellers and short-story writers everywhere (even though it is called a novel of linked stories), Goon Squad has a more contemporary and experimental feel than Franzen and thus probably the best contender to knock off the Dickens of 21st Century America

2.      Comic Novels: Always a Bridesmaid
Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland and Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan made it to the championship rounds in their respective years, so a comic novel is a good bet to go far, but not to win. Brief Wondrous Life had the most humor of any of the winners, but I don’t think you could reasonably call it a comedy. Wolf Hall, Cloud Atlas, A Mercy, The Road and The Accidental are all as dour as a meeting of the G8.

3.       Don’t Be Afraid of Picking a Doorstop
Two previous winners, Wolf Hall and Cloud Atlas, are not the quickest reads in the world.  This is good news for the thick, from the longish The Surrendered to the hefty Skippy Dies to the never-ending The Instructions.

4.      Debut Authors Need Not Apply
Every winner had at least one previous book-length publication. Diaz was probably the least established author in terms of backlist, but his short story collection Drown was a major critical success. Bad news here for folk like Adam Levin and Amy Greene, but a flicker of hope for Charles Yu and Julie Orringer, who both followed up terrific short story debuts with fantastic novels. Probably the prime contender who is knocked out by this trend is Karl Marlantes, whose Matterhorn was my favorite book of 2010.

5.     English is the National Language.
No translated works have won. Even Bolano’s 2666 got knocked out in first round. I don’t want to talk about it.

So, Ape, what’s the pick at this point?

Well, I’m going to reserve my official selection for the short-list, but at this point, I’m going with A Visit from the Goon Squad. I think there’s enough reservation about Freedom to keep it from being a runaway train like The Road or Brief Wondrous Life, and Goon Squad’s combination of creativity and sensitivity make it really versatile: both technique-fetishists and emotional readers will find reasons to love it.

That’s something else to remember: the winner has to get through four judges, so it can’t be too specific a flavor *sniff* 2666 *sniff.* This would be a reason to bet against blogger-fav Room; there have been enough people who hate the book to suggest it has a certain something that could turn a judge off. 

There’s my pick, anybody else want to stick their neck out with me?


Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Shop Indie BookstoresVisit


  1. David Mitchell. The backlash against the backlash is here :)

  2. "English is the national language" - a sad observation. While I know that the majority of books published (and publicized) in the English speaking world are in English, it's still disheartening to see that even in an award that could include foreign titles, there won't be any...

    The point about debut authors is also quite interesting. It's funny mostly because so many of the new books I see published every year scream "beautiful debut", "wonderful debut" blah-blah-blah and though many readers enjoy them, they probably won't get their due (by your estimation), no matter the publicity they get.

  3. I'd have to agree with your assessment. I fall in the camp of those who love Room, but I know many who don't. To get through four judges might be a tough road. Same with Freedom (which I haven't read, but it seems to be a polarizing book). If Egan wins? Good on her. Great book. Definitely in my top 5 of the year.

  4. Ape, I'm nominating you to make a book for this in March. I'll help with some early odds: Freedom 2:1, Good Squad 4:1, Great House 8:1, Matterhorn: 10:1, The Lonely Polygamist 10:1, The Instructions 150:1.

  5. Tony-
    I would think his previous win precludes him from having a great shot.

    Well, there are some translated works on the longlist (I'd say Syjuco's ILLUSTRADO would be the most likely candidate). And while debut works are hyped, they are what they are: someone's first crack at publication. Not surprising that the second go-round tends to be a better product.

    I don't think FREEDOM is that polarizing; I think the amount of press it got is what's polarizing. I really don't think your average reader of literary fiction is likely to hate it. ROOM, though, has something in it people can hate.

    Deal. When the short list comes out, I'll make an annotated book on it. You're odds look about right to me, though Udall's are too short (comic novel) and Levin's too long (it's showing up on best of the year lists, so has to be at least 50-1)

  6. First-time the colors and design..nice and calm. I read How to Read the Air...can't wait to see what you think about it.

    Hopping by from the blog hop.

    Stop by my blog to see my answer to this week's question.

    Also check out a design site I found...pretty is in the right side panel.

    Happy Holidays!!

  7. Great choice. I always love to watch these. I need to work my way through a few of the titles before I pick my potential winners but just based off general opinion I'd say 'Freedom' stands a good chance.

  8. It's a shame about Translated works not featuring or if featured discounted, because you lose such a fantastic selection of books, Is there any reason for this insularity or just some strange quirk of the process.

  9. I am planning to run another contest where participants fill out the tournament brackets. Put your prognosticating to the test by picking all the matchups!

    Enough promoting. Your tips are good ones. I think the Franzen and Egan do have to be the front-runners right now, though, for me, Great House is the best "published in 2010" book I have read so far (beating out Franzen, haven't yet gotten to Egan).

    I am hoping Orion You Came makes it to the shortlist. While it has almost no chance of winning, I would love to see others' reactions to what I think is a cleverly entertaining book.

    I also don't think C, Lord of Misrule, or The Imperfectionists should be counted out of the running. McCarthy is a former finalist and his latest is more highly regarded than Remainder. Lord of Misrule has one award under its belt already (a sometimes good sign, but no NBA winner has claimed the Rooster). I have yet to hear anything bad about The Imperfectionists and have heard much that is very good.

    I am going on too long. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the TOB 2011.


  10. Woolf-
    I just finished GREAT HOUSE, and while it is an accomplished work, I don't think it has enough plot to take the crown here (past winners have had, in addition to distinct style, fairly strong plots). The transience and centerlessness of GREAT HOUSE does't provide the narrative drive. This is not to criticize the book, but only to comment on its chances.

    And I look forward to trying my hand at the bracket-guessing.