Monday, March 21, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books: Breaking Down Week Two

After my stellar week one performance, my match predictions for week two went directly into the proverbial tank. That's bad for my bracket, but great for the post-match commentary....commentary. Here's what stuck out to me from Matches 5-8.... (and here's last week's round-up for Matches 1-4)

Match 5 Winner: Nox
Match 5: Nox by Anne Carson versus Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, judged by Andrew Womack.

Womack on Nox:

"Still, I was wondering, does it qualify as a contender here? I’m still not completely sure. If there were a nonfiction version of the Tournament of Books, I decided, this work wouldn’t fit so neatly in there, either. It’s part-this and part-that, and no one except the author, and probably not even her, can know which are which."

The tacit understanding behind the Tournament of Books is that it really is a Tournament of Novels (almost exclusively in English). Could the net be cast wider? Probably, but the judging would have more of these types of reactions. Judging (and reading judging) is really only satisfying if the contestants exist on the same plane because what we like about judging is the close assessment of the virtues of objects within a category, not the virtues of the category itself. If I ask "what do you like better: a banana or The Godfather Part II," chances are you won't be comparing De Niro's acting to potassium levels; you'll be debating the qualities of food versus the quality of film. 

Match 6 Winner: Next
Match 6: Next by James Hynes versus So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, judged by Jessica Francis Kane

Kane on So Much for That:

"Every character can and does at some point deliver a diatribe on one issue or another with fluid sentences and the right vocabulary, making them really qualified to testify before Congress, but a little less compelling as fictional creations."

Social issue novels, like comedic novels, don't age particularly well; so much of what they do depends on the concerns of the day that once the calendar flips, the impact of the novel fades. The few that do manage to last tend to have characters that transcend their particular "issue." As Kane notes, the characters in So Much for That are so aware that they are living lives embroiled in "social issues" that it prevents them from having much independent identity. Now, I think So Much for That could have made the characters' awareness of social issues itself a "social issue': it seems interesting that we do have a surplus of canned cultural criticism at the ready. In So Much for That, this is not at all helpful in solving real problems; the only thing that solves problems is decisive action (let's ignore for a minute that this decision action requires nearly a million dollars in cash and a new life in a third world country where the money will last a lifetime to work)

Match 7 Winner: Model Home
Match 7: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart versus Model Home by Eric Puchner, judged by Matthew Baldwin

Baldwin on Super Sad True Love Story:

I got exactly as far as “UnitedContinentalDelamerican” before giving up on Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which is to say about halfway through page one. If my 40 years on this big blue marble have taught me one thing, it’s that hyperbolic corporate portmanteaus are the hallmark of wacky five-minutes-in-the-future dystopias. And that, unfortunately, is a class of literature of which I have had my fill.

Baldwin on Model Home:

Set in 1985, Eric Puchner’s debut novel documents a nuclear family on the cusp of detonation.

Somehow in Baldwin's reading experience, novels about the problems of the nuclear family rarer than comic dystopian novels. (I would imagine that anyone who reads literary fiction with some consistency would find this...striking). This is a secondary problem of judging categories rather than subjects--biases for or against a class become the vectors of analysis, rather than the particular qualities of each. To continue the above example of categorical judging: That Baldwin eats a lot of bananas biases him against finding a particular banana desirable, and that he hasn't seen many mafia movies predisposes him to be delighted by The Godfather II

Match 8 Winner
Match 8: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender versus Bloodroot by Amy Greene, judged by Catherine George

George's verdict:

So. Bloodroot, a story that might’ve caught me if it hadn’t been so obscured by its own words, versus Particular Sadness, a fine example of craft that just didn’t move me. Who wins? In the end, Particular Sadness chalked up a bunch of extra points for technical merit, and today, that’s all it needed to move forward.

This was perhaps my favorite moment from the first round judging. Why? Well, George's description of the strengths and weaknesses of the novels lines up with my own, yet she comes to a different verdict. Her preference for craft leads her to prefer (slightly) The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. My preference for interesting messes over bloodless craft leads me to prefer (slightly) Bloodroot. This then is not a disagreement, but an exposure of different value systems. This moment reminds me of the subjectivity of my own taste and gives me access to someone else's subjectivity---to my mind this can only enrich the reading experience. 

I'll be doing a similar work-up after this week's round two judging, already underway, when it's wrapped up.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm really curious about Model Home. I'm dying to read that. Love books about suburbia for some reason.