Talking Tournament: Rosecrans Baldwin, Andrew Womack, Kevin Guilfoile, and John Warner

Nine years ago, the editors of the culture website The Morning News looked at the world of literary prizes – the Pulitzer!  The Booker!  The National Book Award! – and decided that there was room for… the Rooster.  The Tournament of Books would prove to be in keeping with its colorfully nicknamed mascot (and customary prize), a far cry from the secret convocation of award judges and the ensuing reverential anointment of a winner.  Instead, Rosecrans Baldwin and Andrew Womack proposed a monthlong, out-in-the-open, knock-down-drag-out series of bouts in March between sixteen nominated works of the previous year’s fiction – organized by bracket, in the style made ubiquitous by the NCAA basketball tournament that unfolds at the same time.

If the concept sounds like a high-culture-meets mass-event lark, the result has proved something much more — a compelling and unpredictable remix of traditional criticism, competition and blog-flavored community, in which the verdicts of the judges are followed by “color commentary” and the vibrant inputs of Tournament’s growing legion of eager followers.

With the 13th annual Tournament of Books presented by NOOK by Barnes & Noble, goes on all through the month, with competitors including Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  I took the opportunity to chat via email with its ringmasters —  Andrew Womack, Rosecrans Baldwin, Kevin Guilfoile, and John Warner — about the origins and evolution of the Rooster. –-Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: Most articles or interviews about the Tournament of Books begin — I think understandably — with the interviewer asking you to explain how the whole thing works.  I’m a little worried it’ll be tiresome for you to go through it again, so let me see if I can do it in a nutshell:  every year, the Tournament organizers select a field of sixteen books to represent the previous year in fiction.  Then those books are pitted against one another, like NCAA basketball teams competing during March Madness, in a series of head-to-head “battles.”  In each case, a single judge determines which book will advance, and which will be left behind, writing up her or his reasons for doing so.  In the end, two books that have between them bested all comers will be subject to a final, group judgement by all the participating critics.  (How’d I do?)

Andrew Womack: That’s the gist of it, though we’re continually looking for new ways to shake up the format. After the first year we added in booth commentators—starting with Kevin, and then John—whose assessments of each day’s match is as essential as the judgment itself. A couple of years ago we opened a contest for our readers, giving them a chance to audition for a slot on the judging panel. And then this year we added a play-in series at the beginning of the Tournament, where an extra judge decides which of three additional books gets a berth in the Opening Round. Oh, and a few years back we added in a Zombie Round.

BNR: Maybe you’d better explain about the Zombie Round.  And the Rooster.

Rosecrans Baldwin: Before the Tournament starts, we ask our readers to tell us which of the participating books they like best. We hold on to the data and keep it a secret. Then, about three weeks into the Tournament, right before the finals, we host a semifinal match called the Zombie Round, and that’s where the two would-be finalists—the two books that have survived all of their matches thus far—go up against the two most popular books that were already killed off along the way. And so for one match they rise from the dead because our readers loved them so, and we give them another chance at life.

The Rooster stems from the night, about ten years ago, that Kevin, Andrew, and I got drunk in Brooklyn and started talking about doing a Tournament of Books. Kevin came up with the original idea, and Andrew and I thought it sounded great. Then we’re sitting around, we realized if we were going to host a contest, we need a prize—something with character. We asked, who’s our favorite character from contemporary literature? It was unanimous: The Rooster, aka David Sedaris’s brother Paul who frequently shows up in his essays.

John Warner: And each year since, we threaten the winner that we’ll deliver a live rooster to their door. But we’ve never done it. (It’s hard to airmail roosters.) Instead, we donate to the Heifer Foundation in the amount of several flocks of chickens.

Kevin Guilfoile: Although if we ever have a winning author who wants a live rooster, I’m determined to find a way to get one to him or her.

BNR: The Tournament has always struck me as having a surprisingly nice balance between idiosyncratic whimsy — a sort of “why the hell not” idea of the sort the Internet seems to foster — and quite serious.  Did it start out that way?  Or did the needle point more in one or the other direction?

Kevin: The idea started as a joke—the funny ha-ha kind. We were talking about book awards—at the time the National Book Award was being criticized because all the nominees lived like on the same block in Brooklyn or something—and we all agreed that awards for art are both ridiculous and irresistible at the same time. The idea that a small group of people could lock themselves in a conference room and emerge with the “Best Book of the Year” was preposterous, but we also loved debating about it. And of course there are always accusations about conflicts of interest and cronyism, etc. So without even a hint of sincerity I suggested we start our own award and set it up like the NCAA basketball tournament so everyone can see who the judges are and why they picked this book over that one. For me it was strictly a thought experiment. What I should have realized is that I was talking to Rosecrans and Andrew, who, unlike me, are serious “Yes! Let’s do that! Let’s put on a show!” guys.

The first year had a real DIY feel to it. I think all the judges were TMN contributors and editors. I don’t really remember how the books were chosen. Every year since then we’ve tried to add a little wrinkle—color commentary, a Zombie Round, this year we have a three-book play-in round made up of novels about Iraq and Afghanistan. If those innovations are popular we keep them and if they aren’t we discard them. It really has been like an evolution, which makes the ToB stronger and unpredictable without changing the basic nature of it.

Rosecrans: On the serious side, we’ve gotten tons of feedback from people—writers, readers, industry people, certain people who run other certain book awards. In the end, we’re promoting fiction, both the one-on-one, intimate, strange experience a person undergoes while reading a book—which is why we ask our judges to relate their experience with the book, and also why we let them determine their own judging criteria—and then the pleasure in discussing books with one another, which explodes in the comments section.

BNR: The judgment-essays in the tournament are interesting to me because they have the flavor of book reviews, but of course contain an artificial constraint quite different from that of a book review.  I think a lot (as a book review editor) about whether and how much book reviews change most people’s views of books: about how often I’ve imbibed a critic’s perspective, taken on a lens that then permanently alters how I see it. Have any of you had that experience after reading a judge’s comments in the TOB?

John: The best part about the commentaries for me is that by juxtaposing two books, judges are almost always obligated to “show their work.” I’m partial to reviews that do their thinking on the page anyway (as opposed to offering me a declaration), and the tourney format practically demands this.

My “lens” on a book is often altered by judge commentaries. I don’t want to put in a spoiler, but as an example, a judge praised one of the books in this year’s tourney for its “lack of artifice,” where I had been thinking the same warm thoughts for the book, only it was because of the author’s skillful employment of artifice. The judge’s comment didn’t just get me thinking about the book differently, but how we think about “artifice” as well.

I’ve said this to Kevin many times, but I’ve learned more about writing books from the tourney than just about anywhere else, and I think it’s due to me being required, as the color commentator, to consider all of these different responses to books.

Kevin: We’ve noted it every year (and will say it again this year), but most of the time when people “review” a book, what they are really doing is rationalizing their gut feeling about it. A review isn’t anything like a logical proof. But when the question changes from “Do I like this book?” to “Do I like this book better than that one?” it forces you to really address the why of it all. As John says, I’ve have learned so much about who I am as a writer (and a reader) from the ToB.

BNR: Do Tournament of Books readers constitute a community?  All right, I admit it:  I would say the answer to that question is yes.  So, really, what I’m asking is, what kind of community is it?  How would you characterize it? (Though if you think that the answer is “no” or “why in the world would you think that?” feel free to say so.)

Andrew: Definitely, but I’d say there are actually a number of unconnected communities that only have the Tournament in common. In some cases, they’re seasoned readers who read all the books when they came out, before we even announced the brackets. Sometimes it’s groups of people who only read one or two novels a year, and they wait until the Tournament Championship to decide what those one or two books are going to be.

Rosecrans: We also hear about informal get-togethers, bookstore events, office betting pools, particularly English department gambling, public library gambling. There’s even a group on Goodreads for Rooster-heads that spends all year conversing about possible contenders and their favorite reads.

BNR: Biggest upsets — final round or otherwise?

Kevin: Certainly the run that Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods had last year, making it all the way to the Zombie Round, could not have been predicted. I really like that book, but it is so odd and I think everyone was surprised when it took down Murakami’s 1Q84, which was probably a prohibitive favorite that year. In 2009, when Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge, a book I think few people had heard of, defeated Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, that was a shocker (and one I was rooting for). In 2006, Sam Lipsyte’s incredible run to the final match with Home Land (not at all to be confused with the Showtime series of the same name) was a lot of fun. Lipsyte wasn’t well known yet and that year he defeated Kazuo Ishiguro, Nicole Krauss, and Zadie Smith to get there. I can’t say we’ve ever had a real upset in the finals. There have been some close final matches, though, like 2011’s epic rematch between A Visit From the Goon Squad and Freedom, which Jennifer Egan won by a single vote.

BNR: Do you find yourselves rooting for particular entrants?

Andrew: Definitely in the Opening Round. There’s always a favorite in there I’m pulling for—but it’s never made it to the Championship. The Tournament is known for its upsets. Add to that the unpredictability of the Zombie Round, and you can never tell what’s going to make it through to the very end.

John: I take some of the losses hard for sure, as do our readers. I remember in 2011 when Next by James Hynes was eliminated in the semi-finals, I did some serious gnashing of teeth. Since we know the results before they’re released, I’m usually over the hurt by the time our public reacts, so it’s fun to see who agrees with me. Like Andrew, I’ve never had my top pick win a tournament, save Cloud Atlas in the first year when I was just a judge.

BNR: Do profound disagreements about a book arise among you?  Or a judgment in the tournament?  Has there ever been a case where that’s actually been a source of conflict? 

John: Having only an advisory role in the books that are chosen, I’m sometimes disappointed by what awaits me in the final 16 (or 18 this year). The 16 books wouldn’t be my 16, but that’s sort of the point of the whole exercise. It’s arbitrary and capricious, just like all of publishing!

Kevin and I have very similar tastes, which I would like to think is due to our superior discernment, but it likely because we’re just similar in a lot of ways. We like the same music and restaurants to, and I think we both have a secret love of Gilmore Girls marathons, which is not so secret any more, I guess.

The most significant disagreements are usually in the comments. I swear that once or twice I’ve heard a wail of despair when a particularly unpopular judgment goes live.

Sometimes the friction is between the commenters and the two of us. In 2009, neither Kevin nor I cared for Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and we were tagged pretty hard for it in the comments. I’m not saying they called us dumb or philistines, but it sure felt that way.

Kevin: That was really fun, though. I think the ongoing, weeks-long discussion about 2666 (as it happened in the judgments, the commentaries, the reader comments, and also in external blog posts about the tourney) was one of the all-time high points of this event. It was a passionate discussion about books that was funny, and sometimes pretty heated, but it never turned nasty the way you expect internet contretemps to do.

BNR: I remember when Cloud Atlas won the first tournament  — I had just learned about the TOB and “tuned in” just in time for the Final — and there has remained, in my mind, something of a connection between Cloud Atlas and the Tournament.  Both marry gamelike structure to something that goes well beyond that structure in ambition. 

Kevin: It’s interesting you say that because I have always connected Cloud Atlas very closely to the ToB, as well. I read it specifically for that tourney and it remains one of my favorite books of all time. I think there is something transferable about your good feelings for a work of literature and the place/person/institution responsible for putting it in your hands. That is a big component of the Rooster’s growing success, I think. Connecting with the tournament, discovering great books, arguing about books you don’t like—this is all great fun, and the opportunities to do it are just all too rare. The ToB has become an arena where everyone can be a gladiator to some extent.

BNR: One of the refreshingly democratizing aspects of the Tournament has always been the way the judges are a mixed bag of established book reviewers, early-in-their-career novelists, literary bloggers, and other unpredictable commentators.  Without asking you to name names, perhaps you could relate some of the most memorable moments in judge-management?

Rosecrans: Dale Peck hated both of his assigned books so much he refused to choose one, and we flipped a coin. Andrew W.K. gave the win to a book on the grounds of “intricate book production”—the fans went bananas over that.

Kevin: We had another judge who implied he had chosen the book with the best cover. It’s an unserious event that many people take very seriously. When you love a book and someone else says they don’t like it (or are dismissive of it), that can feel like a personal insult. And when someone else loves a book you love, it’s a kind of affirmation of who you are. It really does become existential on some level, which is a funny thing to say about a contest with a live chicken for a prize.

Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down and You Lost Me There. He is a co-founder of The Morning News.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two novels, Cast of Shadows and The Thousand, that have been translated into more than 20 languages. His latest book, a memoir, is A Drive into the Gap.

John Warner is the author of The Funny Man, and, as his alter ego, The Biblioracle, a weekly columnist for the Chicago Tribune Printers Row book supplement. He teaches at the College of Charleston.

Andrew Womack is a co-founder of The Morning News.