No one told me about the Tournament of Books; I had to stumble upon it on the internet one day back in 2014. This is the thirteenth year the Tournament is being held and still most of my friends don’t know about it, I guess because it’s about as niche as you can get — not only do you have to love reading novels for it to appeal to you but I think you have to love reading about reading novels. After all, why read about what other people think about lots of books when you could be spending that time just reading the books themselves? Of this year’s sixteen contenders, for example, I have so far read one. Hopefully that will change quickly (this week I’m on Spring Break), but for the meantime I still spend thirty minutes or so reading the judges’ decisions and then the booth commentary by commissioners Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, even though I don’t really have a frame of reference for what they’re discussing. I still haven’t read frontrunners like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. But the ToB makes it okay, in the same way that the NCAA basketball tournament makes it okay for you to fill out a bracket without having thoroughly familiarized yourself with all the teams.
Okay so every March these book nerd bloggers at The Morning News construct a bracket of 16 novels published during the previous calendar year and pit them head-to-head against each other, one matchup each day, in the style of the NCAA’s “March Madness” basketball tournament. At 9 AM a guest writer for the site posts their judgment of that day’s two vying novels, which ends up being a hybrid essay somewhere between book review, literary criticism, entertainment writing and personal thought piece. This is much of what makes the Tournament so great — the blog writing itself stands on its own, making you want to read the books discussed (or not) without spoiling them, and also making you think about what constitutes a good novel at the present moment.
The Tournament is especially fulfilling for those of us who have stopped watching NCAA basketball. I used to be a religious consumer of the American tradition that is men’s college basketball in the month of March, filling out brackets that I printed out from ESPN.com or CBS SportsZone or Yahoo Sports, entering pools at work and online with friends, spending my Saturdays and Sundays watching games like Xavier versus San Diego State, Creighton versus Texas Tech. When I was in high school my friends and I would slip over to the desktop computer in the back of the classroom to monitor the scores on the blistering first two days of the tournament. This was in open defiance of our teachers who had found themselves in the odd position of forbidding us from checking scores during class time while also badly wanting an update themselves, since they no doubt had $20 in the faculty pool.
March Madness seems to reside at one of the uppermost landings of the long staircase of phallocentric American spectator sport culture, a staircase which inevitably leads to the dark attic of fantasy football and basketball — a year-round pastime I used to go crazy for as well. A couple decades ago brackets for the women’s basketball tournament began to pop up, but anyone who has operated a television or turned on a computer in at least the last 31 years (I’d imagine much longer) knows that this effort is merely lip service to the notion of gender equality. There is no hype around the women’s tournament other than commentators who are keeping track of UConn’s current winning streak. There is no effort to analyze the strengths of all 68 teams, no breakdowns of “storylines” or upset potentials. Photos, headlines and juice on the men’s tournament monopolize sports journalism in March, while the women’s games are either put on a separate page called “women’s basketball” to reinforce the silly and unequal gender binary (see also: the Oscars), or they can be found below the men’s recap.
Of course, I had no consciousness about these disparities when I was still a March Madness aficionado; what ultimately caused me to drop the habit was not the issue of gender or sex. With the sacrifice of television (i.e., college) it was easier for me to slowly extricate myself from the grips of March men’s basketball fever, but what really zapped my faith was the realization that the people playing on the screen — on whose athleticism and work ethic and chemistry I was hanging at every turn — were kids just like me. In fact they were my age, or even younger. It suddenly occurred to me that each year millions of Americans were going Mad for people who were essentially in the same position I was in — stuck on the college’s meal plan, showing up late and hungover for class, utterly blind to the world — with the small exception that they were quite good at basketball. And it hit me that that was bullshit, or at least inexplicably dumb, because at my small liberal arts university I knew a couple thousand 21 year-olds who were just as special as famous commentator Dick Vitale’s latest Duke backcourt obsession. The difference was merely that my friends weren’t getting nationally televised and raved over and addictively wagered on by half the country for their stellar reading of Beowulf or their GIS mapping of the Susquehanna River flood plain.
The creators of the Tournament of Books are implicitly asking, “Why should we be content to glorify a bunch of male athletes, and erect an entire industry to profit off that glorification?” Why lose our shit over men’s basketball when we could be losing our shit over literary fiction? Thus began March madness for emotionally and politically engaged readers of fiction. Each year the commissioners make a point to note the meaninglessness of the actual matchups and eventual victories drawn from their online event–the judgments are, after all, based on one random writer’s literary preferences–and the excitement remains. It seems to be human nature to jump aboard a bandwagon, to incorporate an elevated object, however briefly, into one’s own identity. I would be lying if I said I didn’t read the Tournament, just a little bit, because I was pulling for certain titles, certain writers and their issues, certain modes and orientations of fiction to prevail. The difference, though, is that I cheer for The Underground Railroad or The Vegetarian because I like what those books seem to be saying (even if I haven’t yet read them!), whereas I cheer for Xavier or Creighton because I liked the sound of their name or the color of their uniforms or the number-seed some old men on TV gave them. Or, really, because I vaguely remember them doing well last March–their names ring a bell.
I imagine there are many March Madness spin-offs out there but I recommend the ToB. At lower points in my life the Tournament has literally (heh) given me reason to go to work. The handful of books chosen off the longlist are often truly some of the best of the year, though some superior works are always snubbed from the narrow pool, for example this year Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deuschland, and of course all the great nonfiction published, like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning. In some cases the ToB judges actually (IMHO) got it right, like in 2014 (James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird) or 2012 (Open City by Teju Cole). This year Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning novel is favored to win, but I think we could see upsets by Kang’s or Gyasi’s novels, or Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers. (I can say confidently that the one contender I have managed to read so far, Jonathan Lee’s High Dive, should not win.)