March 8, 2011

The tournament of books begins… and discovers it is whiter than Wonderbread


As I have argued previously, The Tournament of Books, which begins tomorrow, is the best literary award in existence. For the next month, followers of the event will be treated to a steady stream of heated, witty, heartfelt, and occasionally ridiculous literary debate as the judges, the official commentators, and unofficial commentators all try to track down that ever-elusive quarry: literary quality.

What makes the bracket-style single-elimination literary contest so great is its total transparency. We know who the judges are, we know why they pick the books they pick. We might not agree with everything that’s said (indeed, we most certainly will not), but at least we have the privilege of witnessing it unfold—something perversely denied us in all other literary awards.

An example of this transparency in action: in the pre-tournament discussion between “booth” commentators Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner we learn that, in response to the recent attention paid to gender disparities in in publishing and journalism the ToB has created a line-up of authors and critics with “exact gender parity.” A laudable thing it would certainly seem. But then Guilfoile writes:

“Hooray for us!” we shouted. Then we looked again and discovered that the list was also whiter than the 20 lb. Hammermill on which FOX News prints the viewer demographics for Huckabee With Mike Huckabee. We don’t even have an Italian!

Will we be criticized for this? Certainly. Should we be criticized for this? Probably…. And so when you let fly those particular arrows I will likely not try to defend our position, but rather just nod my head grimly. Nevertheless, I think we could do some soul-searching when it comes time to make up next year’s shortlist.

This is the kind of transparency I applaud. A thousand literary prizes (I would guess) throughout history have created excessively Caucasian shortlists. But none of them talk about it. None of them show their hand in such a refreshing manner and admit, in trying to not be sexist we may have stumbled into prejudice. The flaws of the contest are apparent already. There will be more flaws to come. But in the end, precisely because these flaws are viewable to the public, the Tournament of Books award will be a meaningful one. We will know how it won and why. And it will be a great intellectual pleasure to watch the game play out.