Let’s get this out of the way: I’m obsessed with awards shows. And not just the big ones like the Oscars and Emmys. I’m the guy watching the SAG Awards on Bravo, the Independent Spirit Awards, the Tony’s, the Emmy’s, the Golden Globes. If there’s a trophy, I’m there. I was in the audience (okay, I was working the event) when Jonathan Franzen snagged the National Book Award for THE CORRECTIONS (a very just victory), and Arthur Miller received a lifetime achievement award. I’m the kind of person who still remembers with an unfortunate degree of anguish that Leaving Las Vegas didn’t even get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar the year that Braveheart won. So when I caught on that Powell’s and The Morning News were doing a Tournament of Books to coincide with March Madness, let’s just say I found a new favorite website.
Starting with 32 books from 2006, each title was pitted against one other for single round eliminations as judged by a small panel of random literary types. This went on until there were two semi-finalists. Now, two eliminated titles will be brought back for a second chance. Then, once down to two finalists, all of the judges will have to pick between them to crown one ultimate victor.
Looking over the initial list of contenders, I realized that I had only read two of the books so far. An anemic showing at best. There are a bunch of authors whose previous work I’ve read (I’ll get to your new one soon, Richard Ford!), and some of the novels are already in my piles to read at home. This is to say, I don’t have a favorite in this contest. There is, however, one novel on the list that everyone seems to love, and I happen to…well, let’s say, dislike.
When something receives universal acclaim, I often manage to find a way to hate it. I’m the schmuck who couldn’t stand Lost in Translation and who couldn’t fall in love with Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. I have to wonder if it’s me being unintentionally contrarian, or if maybe, just maybe, my opinions are actually defensible. Which brings me, nervously, to THE ROAD.
Everyone loves THE ROAD. It has sailed through the rounds of the Tournament of Books, eviscerating the competition and garnering praise aplenty. In case you haven’t read it, here’s a synopsis: guy and his son walk down a post-apocalyptic road dodging cannibals. The End. Sure, the writing is terse and impressive. I can really, really picture the grey. And the ash. And the burnt logs. And the grey. Cormac McCarthy is a superb writer. With THE ROAD, he jotted down a brilliant short story. A very, very overlong short story. Philosophical musings? Check. Interesting thinking points? Sure. Sleep inducing? Ding ding ding! For a book that people have described as “riveting,” I sure couldn’t wait for it to be over.
But here’s the thing: I feel guilty for not liking it. Critics seems so often to focus on what books are unworthy or unaccomplished that I feel bad about raining on the parade of something so well liked. It makes me want to shout out the names of popular books that I thought were worthy of every bit of their praise (THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA!) if only because so much writing about literature seems focused on the negatives. This leaves me with questions: Does all of the carping about bad books make people more likely to search out the good stuff? Or does it just discourage people from reading at all?
And we’re back at the Tournament of Books. We’re a competitive people. And by we, I mean me. I love to see winners and losers. I’m inspired by competition in a strange, some might say sadistic, way. Since I’ve never developed an affinity for sports (besides the Olympics…don’t get me started), I enjoy watching competitions involving things I care about: movies, books, theater,
I’ll be following these last rounds of the Tournament of Books eagerly, hoping for THE ROAD to fall by the wayside, but I’m probably not the better for it. I’ll give the tournament judges this: plenty seem to go about the task playfully, whether acknowledging that they’re scared of AGAINST THE DAY’S thousand-plus pages or that their decisions ultimately came down to matters of personal preference and not quality.
Having not come around to much of a point, I leave anyone reading with this: does it make sense to pit books against each other? Do literary awards make sense?
UPDATE: Apparently, Oprah selected THE ROAD for her next bookclub book. I wasn't tipped off. Just a totally random coincidence.