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The Brief, Wondrous Tournament of Books 

Is the Novel Prize Dead?

Wednesday, May 28 2008

Page 2 of 3

The tone of the tournament’s literary analysis oscillates between dead serious and flippant. Critic Helen DeWitt savaged Brock Clarke’s novel: “Fredric Jameson says of [Theodor] Adorno’s use of Freud: ‘Neurosis is simply this boring imprisonment of the self in itself, crippled by its terror of the new and unexpected, carrying its sameness with it wherever it goes.’ ... He might have been writing [about Clarke’s] An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.”

Guilfoile’s “booth” response: “Fredric Jameson who? Adorno what? ... Helen DeWitt is one smart cookie, smarter than me, which makes me hesitant to admit that I quite enjoyed An Arsonist’s Guide. ...Also, I enjoy the smell of my dog’s paws.”

The critics are not the only ones who have pull in this competition. During the Zombie Round, readers of the blog are able to, by popular vote, resurrect a defeated novel to battle anew — a wonderful embodiment of the schism between actual readers and the alleged elitism of individual critics. Indeed, the tournament feels like a microcosm of the literary world, a delightful window into the skirmishes and warring doctrines of art. This felt particularly true in the Championship Round, when all the previous critics weighed in for the final verdict between Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The match had everything a fan of sports or literature could hope for: Díaz’s novel was the clear favorite, a lush literary epic that fuses the immigrant experience with unabashed geekdom. Multiculturalism and comic books — a 21st-century shoo-in. In the role of improbable underdog was Remainder,a small, strange, intentionally airless book, whose wealthy brain-damaged narrator attempts to replicate moments of ­“authenticity.” Remainder was knocked out in round two after being savaged by blogger Mark Liberman (“It’s memorable, in the way that botched surgery and disastrous trips are memorable. ... You can have my copy, and welcome to it”) but was brought back from the dead in the Zombie Round, and scored an upset over Ferris’ Then We Came to the End to reach the ­championship.

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The bout between these books represented a tradition of heated conflict between books invested in the culture, history and substance of the world and books obsessed with the nature of narrative and reality itself. Díaz’s descriptions are bawdy and visceral: “What he wanted was to suck Beli’s enormous breasts, to fuck her pussy until it was a mango-juice swamp.” McCarthy’s, cold and cerebral: “It looked kinda disgusting — like something that’s come out of something.” This line alone, for my money, qualifies Remainder for contender status. (Or, as tournament judge Ze Frank put it: “Liberman has offered to give his copy away. I suggest you take it. And while you are there, sift through anything else that Liberman is throwing away ... my guess is you’ll find plenty of treasures.”)

The upset was not to be. Oscar Wao stampeded through the Championship Round with a final vote of 12 to 4, taking a well-deserved victory, and the coveted Rooster Prize. For those who followed the tournament, Wao’s subsequent Pulitzer seemed like an afterthought — only the Tournament of Books told us why to care. The Pulitzer will boost Díaz’s sales, but the TOB is alive with passion and dissent in a way other literary prizes are not. Books are not basketball. We have no statistics by which to measure their worth in the world or their impact on our minds. Their value can only be found in the debate of those who love or despise them. Shall we save the literary prize from arbitrariness? Then let’s make the TOB a national institution. Let’s have literary showdowns splashed across the covers of book sections, smack-talking critics fighting tooth and nail, and book-loving America in thrilled suspense every March. Let’s throw wide the doors to the temple and expose the steaming entrails of aesthetics — the religion of the literate. Or, at the very least, please, Ms. Prose, the next time you’re judging a literary prize, smuggle in a tape recorder with you, post the transcript and let us witness the story of the fight.


A former intern at
L.A. Weekly, Nathan Ihara is a critic and fiction writer living in New York.

More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:

Not Dead Yet: The Novel as Lifeline By JOE DONNELLY

  • Is the Novel Prize Dead?

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