March 4, 2013
The real March Madness
by Jay McNair
Books and sports aren’t mutually exclusive, but one is clearly better than the other. Sports—obviously—is the better one. I think I won’t hear much argument on this.
But something out there is custom-fitted for both types of fans. The literary sensation I’m referring to is, of course, the Tournament of Books run by The Morning News. If you know it well, you know it’s different from most other book awards. It’s a March-Madness-esque bracket pitting sixteen of the best books of the year against each other. Or maybe not the best. “Some books were dismissed for petty reasons,” the commissioners note. “Some books were no doubt included for arbitrarily aesthetic ones.”
There are other clues that the tournament is not like other awards. This year the judges’ roster includes a dentist who just happens to like reading. It’s full of many other great readers and writers, too (I’m particularly excited to read what Davy Rothbart has to say, because of this article). These judges will tell you exactly what their biases are; here there are no “smoke-filled rooms and incestuous juries” (their words, not mine, never mine). And they will explain, in juicy detail, the exact reason why they picked one book over another.
Even if it’s an arbitrarily aesthetic one.
The grand prize is suitably off-the-wall and even humble: a Rooster, so named in homage to David Sedaris’ brother. The commissioners said they once tried to give the winner a live one. And they offered Jennifer Egan some chickens when she won the tournament in 2011; she chose a donation to Heifer International instead.
They know (and I agree) that no can make an authoritative decision about which book to celebrate and which to toss aside. They say it with better vitriol than I:
“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.”
Well put, TMN writers. Well put. Indeed, there is no objective truth to which book is the best of the year. For many people there’s not even a subjective truth. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao, right? But the judges, commentators, and participants in the Tournament of Books care about books, and they are doing a perhaps pointless thing—naming a single work the champion of a year’s worth of global literary output—because they care.
I embrace this folly.
They call it “the granddaddy of highbrow bracketology,” and it’s back for another year. The beautiful 2013 brackets have been posted over at The Morning News.
Jay McNair was an intern at Melville House.