Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books Shortlist | The Sweet Sixteen

Now it gets really interesting: The Morning News has whittled literary 2010 down to sixteen finalists for its annual single-elimination tournament. And, as important as the surviving titles, the judges step onto the stage. There’s a lot to say here, so let’s take it piece by piece.

Update: Check out all of my slightly obsessive coverage from the 2011 Tournament of Books here.

The Finalists

5 Things I Like About the Shortlist

1. The Rooster Brings the Funny
Though my rules for handicapping the event suggest that a comic novel won’t win, it’s good to see them well-represented: Skippy Dies, Super Sad True Love Story, and The Finkler Question lead the pack here.

2. No Beatrice and Virgil. 
I was sure this wasn’t even a possibility, but still. So bad. So, so bad.

3. Poetry!
I’ve seen Anne Carson’s NOX in the bookstore, and it’s a truly beautiful book. I have no idea if the poetry itself is good, but as physical object, this is a stunner. I’ll be picking this up soon, especially if I can find the hardback/looseleaf edition somewhere for a reasonable price.

4. Room, not The Passage
My sense was that only one of these two buzz books would make the shortlist, and I am glad it’s Room. I have not read either it or The Passage, but I didn’t want to read 700 pages about a girl-child savior of a zombie world. I’m not particularly looking forward to 500 pages about a kid stuck in a small room, but 200 pages is 200 pages.

5. Gender Balance.
Eight dudes. Eight ladies. That there’s a fair fight.

5 Things I Don’t Like About the Shortlist

1. It’s Pretty White
Not bone, nor even ecru: this list is whiter than a lacrosse team. There were several strong Asian-American writers on the longlist, and I thought Mingestu’s How to Read the Air could have been a finalist. Now, I haven’t read the books by Puchner,  Winslow, or Hynes, but that’s three white guys writing about white dude things. Nothing wrong with that of course; I am myself a white dude who enjoys reading about white dude things. But didn’t Murray and Franzen have that particular segment of the literary universe covered pretty well?

2. Whither Matterhorn?
This is head and shoulders above both Bloodroot and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. And Lord of Misrule. And Super Sad True Love Story.  Also, how about a book set sometime before 1999? Gravitas is in relatively short supply as it is. This is a real shame.

3. Other Snubs
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge and Lipsyte’s The Ask, but I can understand leaving them off. I am shocked though, that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and C didn’t make the list. Not in a bad way—just regular, neutral shock.

4. Are The Finkler Question and Lord of Misrule here just because they won big awards?
I’ve not read the former, but the latter seems to me to be riding the NBA win. Or maybe I am just still pissed about Matterhorn.

5. The Special Disappointment of an Overrated Book
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a fine book with an interesting idea and some beautiful writing, but there’s just not much to it. Child protagonist with a gimmick just leaves me unimpressed these days. At least there’s not another book with a child protagonist and a gimmick. Oh wait.

The Judges

5 Things I Like About the Judges

1. The Ideal Reader
The at-large selection of Catherine George is a compelling one. Who else is the ideal reader for an internet contemporary lit competition than a MFA turned lawyer with a novel in the drawer?

2. In Case You’re Wondering Whom I’ll Agree With
I’ll be paying special attention to John Williams’ judging here: I’m a fan of The Second Pass and tend to agree with his assessments.

3. Oh, yea, Publishing is a Business
Michele Filgate’s inclusion seems particularly smart: she has several fingers in the publishing pie. I’ll be interested to see which hat she wears when it comes score-card time.

4. Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone
No, that’s not what I wrote in my high school yearbook: it’s the title of a great album by The Walkmen. Hamilton Leithauser, the band’s lead singer, is a judge this year and, well, I’m just a fan.

5. I Think We Have a Weiner
Juicy, juicy coup to get Jennifer Weiner in the mix here. First, her books would never, ever make the shortlist, though she outsells all these folks. Second, she had some choice things to say about the Freedom hoopla. From an objectivity standpoint, I’m not sure this works: from a blood on the carpet angle, though, this is good internet.

5 Things I Don’t Like about the Judges

1. Time to Have a Blogger
And no, not a blogger who would rather be writing novels or working for their online site. I mean a passionate, knowledgeable book blogger with their fingers on the pulse of the blogosphere. Ron Hogan, Rebecca Schinsky, whoever. The time has come.

2. Literary-Industrial Complex
No editor, publisher, or agent? I don’t know much about the biz, but from what I hear these people do things.

3. Tickle the Ivory
While we’re at it, how about someone who studies literature for a living? It would be frickin’ great to have Andrew Delbanco deciding between Room and Super Sad True Love Story. He would either explode or eviscerate. I would hope for both.

4. So, so young. 
Old people read books too. In fact, most books are read by old people. So what if they still dial-up through AOL?

5. When’s He’s Not Writing, He’s Tweaking his Twitter bio.
The cute, random last line of your bio is now cliché. We just assume you made it up now.

5 Things I Think I Think

1. Egan and Franzen Still in Front
Hard for me to see who is going to beat these two here, based on what I’ve read and seen. I still have half the list to read, but it seems to me that the next tier of contenders, Skippy Dies and Room, are a good two furlongs back from the leaders.

2. The Refs are Part of the Game
In case you are wondering what judge(s) might knock off Freedom, surely the number one overall seed, look to Weiner of course, but also watch John Williams. He was largely unimpressed by it and could easily find something else more worthy.

3. Favorites and Cinderellas
The one seeds (four favorites): Franzen, Egan, Murray, Jacobsen. The four four seeds (longshots): Bender, Greene, Winslow, Puchner.

4. Upset Alert #1 
Super Sad True Love Story will make it farther than Lord of Misrule.

5. Upset Alert #2
Freedom wants no part of So Much for That.

Alright, I think that’s it for now. I’ll be catching up with these books over the next month and then presenting a full breakdown before the judging gets underway on March 27th.

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  1. Nice analysis. My first thought on seeing Jennifer Weiner's name on the list was that she was promised a shot at the first round of Freedom.

    I liked the Bender book more than you did, but can't see it winning. To me, Nox is the long shot here, being, you know, poetry and all.

  2. Great rundown - I posted about this too and pretty much said I can't see anything toppling Freedom. I agree Weiner will try, but at the very least, I'd be hugely shocked if it doesn't get to the finals.

    I gave my zombie round vote to Skippy Dies. Not that I've read it, but I think I'd like it... how's that for informed decision? ;) I'm actually more excited for the books on the list I've not read already. Room can suck it, as far as I'm concerned and while it was probably a given on the list, I hope it goes out early. It won't because I'm not judging, but if I were, it wouldn't make it past the first tier!

  3. I like this. I'd add only let's not forget Elif Batuman is a Phd scholar of Russian lit, vis a vis your "tickle the ivory" wish. She may lack Delbanco's long history in the game but she seems naturally antipathetic to contemporary American lit. Look for a little more blood on the carpet, in other words.

  4. Amy-
    They tend to say the bigger name judges for the later rounds, but I like your thinking. Methinks Franzen will be on Weiner's side of the bracket though...and you are of course right about NOX being THE underdog as poetry. Mistake on my part.

    Trying to save my Zombie round vote until I've made it through the list, but my early nod would be for Matterhorn...wait, Matterhorn's not on the list? I'm writing-in BEATRICE AND VIRGIL in protest.

    I did not know that about Batuman; it didn't pop up in my cursory biography research. Excellent to know...especially for my eventual odds post...

  5. I would have waited too (re: zombie voting), but I believe we only have until next Thurs to vote and there's no way I'm making it through the list by then. I might manage to squeeze two more books in, but certainly not another 13...

  6. Steph-
    Shucks. You are right. Hmmmmm. Going to try to get through Skippy Dies and Savages before then. As of the moment, I guess I'll go with.....Goon Squad.

  7. Room is hardly 500 pages... I think it is maybe 300 or so? But they are very different pages even from just 300 pages of The Passage. I would guess Room is about a quarter of the length of Cronin's book.

  8. 336 pages. Errant hyperbole on my part, perhaps.

  9. It is weird how we root for books we haven't even read. For some reason I am really disappointed that Matterhorn isn't going to win and I haven't even read it!

    I have read Skippy Dies and I loved it. I'm happy to support it now that Matterhorn isn't in the running :-)

    PS. Room desevered the hype. The Passage didn't ;-)

  10. Very entertaining rundown, RA, of something I, as a down under person, have only recently become aware of. I do like your reasons for preferring Room to The passage ... though why not read either and find a nice 200 page book to read.

    Oh, and I agree too with your comment re blogger involvement. It is well and truly time that bloggers were recognised more - and not just bloggers attached to the industry but "real" fair dinkum bloggers.

  11. Jackie-
    Well, the book is good and the backstory is compelling, so I think Matterhorn is easy to root for, even if you haven't read it. Which you should. Now.

    Glad also to hear a positive note for ROOM.

    Well, I wouldn't read ROOM I don't think, but I like reading the shortlist and playing along. If 1 out of 16 doesn't light my fire, that's a pretty good ratio.

  12. This is an awesome post, and not just because you totally made me blush. Thanks for the shout-out (I did apply last-minute, alas) and for breaking this down so well (and so amusingly).

    I know, enough with the adverbs.

    I'll be cheering for Michele (and likely agreeing with her). You up for a bracket-based ToB pool of sorts?

  13. Great rundown. I was disappointed with myself for not having read a single one of these books, though. Looking forward to seeing how this all plays out!

  14. Rebecca-
    Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf is running a bracket pool I will definitely be entering:

    There's still time!

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