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
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?
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?