Monday, May 2, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books: Handing Out Awards to the Judges

So the The 2011 Tournament of Books ended almost a month ago, crowning Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad winner in a 9-8 decision over Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Since then, Goon Squad has gone on to win The Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize to go along with its National Book Critics Circle Award. Clearly, Egan's book is the must-read novel of 2010 and deservedly so.

But we're not here to judge the books; we're here to judge the judges. Here are some hits and misses from the omnibus decision:


1. The Best Analytical Point Award goes to Anthony Doerr
From a certain angle these books feel the same: well-made realistic fiction zeroing in on American bourgeoisie. Sharp detailing. A smattering of jokes. Searing observations about suburbia.
Many of the judges commented on Goon Squad and Freedom having a certain shared ethos, and Doerr nails it here. This observation is not only true of the final pairing, but of the wider tournament field itself. This was a tournament largely about middle and upper middle class white people in contemporary America. The stylistic differences between Franzen and Egan mask a deeper sympathy and might be making difference out of sameness.

2. The Best Metaphor Award goes to Andrew Womack:
For me, this decision comes down to pacing, and Franzen is the Pink Floyd to Egan’s Sex Pistols; by the end of Freedom I couldn’t take another meandering guitar solo, while I was dazzled by how much Goon Squad packed into such a compact space.
While I think Womack is misusing "pacing," which is about cadence and tempo and not length, he's right to mention the reading experience of each work. We're living in a Goon Squad world where shorter, percussive cultural objects about experimentation and recombination seem to be winning the day. Freedom has more in common structurally with Henry James than with anything that exists in our digital age.

3. The Best Perspective Award goes to John Williams:
Egan’s refracted structure seems only half-necessary, and I’m not sure that in 2011 it’s as innovative as it’s gotten credit for.
Williams is bang-on here: the "innovative" appellation is overblown. Goon Squad isn't even the most technically experimental work in the field (Nox and Super Sad True Love Story would rank above it). And though most reviewers, myself included, haven't paid enough attention to the why of Egan's structure, I do think there is a relationship between the structure and her central concerns that is stronger than "half-necessary."  

4. The Seeing the Forest for the Trees Award goes to C. Max McGee:
Where Freedom is a novel of oversharing, telling many episodes from several angles, Goon Squad, often to its benefit, floats us among characters and across decades.
McGee does us the service of noting the difference between scope and length. For all its heft, Freedom is a more focused, exploratory work, concerned with detail, ambiguity, disagreement and indecision. This kind of narrative noodling takes a great deal of time. Goon Squad is like Rufus from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, dropping in and out of history for the most interesting bits. If we prefer Goon Squad to Freedom these days, it might well be that we prefer sampling and observation to sustained investigation.

5.  The Best Invocation of Subjectivity Award goes to Elif Batuman:
Freedom, however, sucked me in from page one. Its central issues—the good versus the cool; how to reconcile sex with normal life; how to live—are particularly close to my heart these days.
 Batumann manages to speak from her own taste in a way that tells us something about the texts at hand without resorting to judgment. I think she identifies the source of the messiness that Freedom is sometimes charged with: how do you write a book about these knotty issues in a way that doesn't end up confused and compromised? Any such effort would likely be dismissed as unrealistic and naive (e.g., the ending of Lionel Shriver's So Much for That). Goon Squad's central themes (time, detachment, and distance) lend themselves more readily to cleaner, more burnished stories. I do wonder if there are two types of reading personalities: one group prefers literature that makes order out of chaos and the other group wants literature to revel in the messiness.


1. The Beating a Dead Horse Award goes to Jennifer Weiner
 It’s like Sophie’s Choice, if Sophie hated both her kids.Worse, neither book was any fun. Freedom’s characters range from loathsome to despicable, with the author’s contempt dripping from every sentence. Egan’s book seemed more like an exercise in Let Me Show You How Clever I Am than anything as lowbrow as entertainment. But Egan gets my vote, because if Franzen takes the prize, then the terrorists win.
Weiner had a chance to add substance to her on-going displeasure about the separation of "serious literature" from "chick lit." Instead, she chose unfunny sarcasm, a reference to the holocaust, and the always creative Let Me Capitalize Things To Show Ironic Distance From a Category strategy of satire. (Also, how is not being any fun "worse" than having to choose which of your children to kill?). If Weiner ever again wonders why people might not take her seriously as she might like, she'll have the comfort of returning to this brief paragraph to assuage her anxiety.

2. The Everyone Who Plays Gets A Ribbon Award goes to Matthew Baldwin
In the first round I decided against Super Sad True Love Story in its second paragraph, so you’ll be pleased to hear that I made it all the way to page 11 of Freedom—in which Jonathan Franzen describes a child as “like an imaginary friend who happened to be visible”—before declaring it the winner. I think I’ve really grown as a critic.
I guess if you are aware of and self-satisfied about your lame effort, then it's all OK.

3. The "Mixed" Metaphor Award goes to Matt Dellinger
These books were like cocktail cousins made with the same liquor: a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. A Visit from the Goon Squad is the more concocted, more garnished drink (e.g., the PowerPoint chapter). It’s wonderfully balanced and beautifully made. Freedom is the high-octane classic, not as easy to drink (e.g., 562 pages), but its seriousness delivers more wallop in the end. Goon Squad delighted me; Freedom clobbered me. The martini beats the Tom Collins. 
 Maybe I need to be Don Draper to understand the alcohol metaphor here, but by this logic would straight grain alcohol be the best possible drink? And isn't a good martini harder to make than a good Tom Collins? And a Manhattan and Martini are not the same, right? To crib from this boozy allegory: the first step is admitting you have a problem.

That about does it for the coverage of the 2011 Tournament of Books. Thanks for reading, and we'll be back next year. The Ape's the early prediction for the 2012 final pair is *DRUMROLLLLLLLLL* Tea Obreht's THE TIGER'S WIFE against Colson Whitehead's ZONE ONE. You heard it here first. Unless I'm way off, in which case you heard it from a guy at the laundromat.


  1. Jennifer Weiner's appraisal in the finals sealed the nail in her coffin for me. I think there was a way to say she didn't enjoy either book without living up to her "Whiner" moniker, and quite frankly the analogy she drew about judging being like the Holocaust, to stating that terrorists support Franzen were just despicable. For someone who wants to be taken seriously, she fails at every level to raise the level of discourse above playground jeers and insults. She is not clever or mordant, she's tired and if I never read another word she has written ever in my life, I will still rue those that I have in 2010 - 2011.

    I love that when Egan was viewed to attack "chick lit" when interviewed about what it is to write after winning the Pulitzer, Weiner took the attack so personally. If not for her mouthing off all of last year, why do I feel like Egan wouldn't even know Weiner exists?

  2. Very interesting article. I haven't read either book so I can't say much but I do love the way you write.

  3. Steph-
    I agree. She was completely outclassed by every other judge in the tournament (well, save one) and she really went out with a whimper. When it came right down to it, she was unequal to the task of making a cogent, persuasive case for anything.