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The Morning News Tournament of Books 2012

The Morning News Tournament of Books is BACK! For the uninitiated, this is a 16-book, bracket-style “tournament” designed to crown the . . . well, I’ll just let them explain it:

Today we’re announcing the shortlist for the 2012 Tournament of Books (for novels, of course, published in 2011) only a week or so into the New Year. See, this is the space where we remind everybody what a folly this exercise is. It’s stupid. A tiny and secretive cadre of people telling everyone else what the best novels of the year are is every bit as ridiculous as an electoral system where anonymously endowed Super PACs tell everyone else which willfully ignorant global-warming denier should be president.

Like we said, stupid. But we do it anyway. And the one thing we humbly offer is transparency, and a rooster for the winner. We do not meet in a closed conference room and slide our decision under the door scribbled on the back of a car-wash receipt, like they do with the Pulitzer. And unlike the National Book Award, we have a series of fail-safes designed to preserve the integrity of our prize by ensuring that we do not mistakenly include books that are homophones of the actual finalists in our shortlist. We are proud to say that the system ultimately worked, but not in time to avoid an apologetic phone call to to the biographer of British painter Copley Fielding.

In the Tournament of Books, you will know who the judges are. What their biases are. Which books they choose and why they are choosing them. In the past we’ve had judges who flipped coins. Judges who picked the book with the prettiest cover. Judges who didn’t finish one of the books. Judges who didn’t finish either book. Once we had a judge who so hated both books we had to literally subdue him physically to make him choose. (When we say “literally” we really do mean literally, though when we say “physically” we mean “politely in an email.”)

In other words, this is the best, non-serious book tournament being played (?) today. And as always, I think their list of 16 books sucks almost as bad as that stupid BCS thing and everything in the state of Alabama.

First off, the judges are definitely top-notch: Emma Straub, Mark Binelli, Oscar Villalon, Bethanne Patrick, Alex Abramovich, Walter Kirn, others.

But the books! Ugh. OK, maybe “meh” is more appropriate. Obviously, I’m disappointed that ONCE AGAIN, they overlooked all Open Letter titles. Zone, Scars, My Two Worlds, could compete with any of the 16 titles “they” selected.

I’ve only read parts of a few of these books, but just because it’s Wednesday, I’m going to break the field down into a few categories:

Deserve to Be There

Nathacha Appanah, The Last Brother (Go Graywolf!)

Teju Cole Open City (Sebald version 2011)

Helen Dewitt, Lightning Rods (Gloryholes! And I wrote about this for Rolling Stone)

Karen Russell, Swamplandia (Karen loves Bragi Olafsson’s The Ambassador!)

Kate Zambreno, Green Girl (We go way way back)

Had to Be There

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Even his blank pages win awards)

Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brother (I know nothing about this except that it’s referenced everywhere)

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Probably good, and ordained as such months before publication)

Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (See The Marriage Plot)

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (Big, totalizing, mesmerizing, infects your dreams—we get it already)

Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (Automatic inclusion since it won the National Book Award)

If This Book Had a Face I’d Punch It

Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (OK, that’s really mean. I’m just so terribly sick of hearing about this book)

Books That Should Be Replaced with Open Letter/New Directions/Archipelago/NYRB Titles

Alan Hollinghurst, Stranger’s Child (Just the description makes me feel tired)

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (We swam in the Blue Lagoon together)

Ann Patchett, State of Wonder (I have no opinion about this)

Donald Ray Pollock, Devil All the Time (Unless this book is set in Felicity, OH, I don’t care)

When this gets started in March, we’ll post some further sarcastic commentary. For now, you should order all 16 titles (+ the three Open Letter ones) from Powells.com the official sponsor of the contest.



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