Every March, sixty-eight men’s college basketball teams battle it out on the court in the NCAA tournament. Bets are laid and rivalries stoked as millions of fans tune in to watch the games. Meanwhile, a different kind of March Madness—complete with brackets, rivalry, and trash talking—has been taking place in the literary world for the past thirteen years: the annual Tournament of Books (ToB). Hatched in 2004 by writers Rosecrans Baldwin, Andrew Womack, and Kevin Guilfoile, the ToB pits books of fiction published in the previous year against one another in a format similar to the NCAA tournament, until one is crowned champion at the end of the month.
“Over booze, that’s how,” jokes Baldwin, when asked how the tournament began. “Isn’t that how all good stupid ideas are born?” Hosted on the Morning News, a web zine founded by Baldwin and Womack in 1999, the Tournament of Books was launched to start an alternative conversation about books. “We all know book awards and best-of lists are totally stupid,” says Baldwin, who argues that much of today’s literary criticism and accolades are based upon an author’s popularity rather than a book itself. “It’s a ridiculous notion to say any book is the best book of the year, and so many of these prizes are shrouded in secrecy. ToB is completely transparent, and it’s about the books, not the authors.”
Here’s how the tournament works: Around Thanksgiving, Baldwin and crew announce a longlist of about seventy books of fiction—mostly novels but occasionally a story collection or graphic novel—published that year. In the publicity announcement for the 2018 ToB, the ToB staff said they base each selection on their own reading, “plus recommendations from family, publishers, critics, authors, hard-core reader types, short lunches in San Francisco, long breakfasts in New York, and an eloquent drug dealer we met at a party.” The longlist is then whittled down to a roughly twenty-book shortlist after the New Year, and the organizers select a judging panel made up of writers, critics, and bloggers. In the first week of March, the tournament begins. Each weekday a new matchup is featured on the Morning News website (themorningnews.org/tob), and a judge advances one of the books to the next round. Literary experts then provide “color commentary” on the match, and at the end of March all the judges weigh in on the championship match to select a winner.
The prize for the champion? A live rooster. Why a live rooster? Because Baldwin and his merry band of ToB organizers were inspired by David Sedaris’s story “You Can’t Kill the Rooster,” about his brother Paul, who nicknamed himself “the Rooster.” “No one’s ever actually accepted the rooster,” Baldwin admits. “Adam Johnson almost went for it after The Orphan Master’s Son won in 2013, but he realized his neighbors might kill him—roosters are extremely loud and annoying—so we make a donation to Heifer International every year instead.”
Unlike with most book prizes and lists, the judges’ decisions are posted publicly on the Morning News website. Some rationales are rather serious in tone, while others are as lighthearted as the tournament itself. In the comments section of the website, readers can share their assessment of the books. “That’s where things get really interesting,” Baldwin says. “Some fans of the tournament read all the books in advance and debate who should have or should not have won each round. It gets pretty raucous. There is always a lot of conversation about what books should make the longlist before we even get to the shortlist.” In the 2017 tournament’s opening-round match-up, between Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Doubleday) and Michelle Tea’s Black Wave (Feminist Press), dozens of readers argued with one another about the value of allegory, the books’ treatment of audience and race, and character development. Fans can also vote to reinstate an eliminated book in the tournament’s “zombie round,” which takes place right before the final match. In 2011, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf) was resurrected by fans and defeated Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to win the championship.
In January the organizers announced the eighteen books on the shortlist for the 2018 tournament, as well as the panel of judges, which includes New York Times best-selling fiction writers, science writers, bloggers, and newspaper editors. The shortlist includes some prizewinning titles—George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize–winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House), Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award–winning Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner)—as well as some lesser-known novels, such as Roy Kesey’s translation of Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories (Soho Press) and Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida (Coffee House Press). The organizers freely admit many great books from 2017 aren’t on the list at all, for which they invite readers to lambaste them. The first match of the tournament, set for March 7, will feature three of the shortlisted novels facing off in a “play-in” round for a spot in the tournament.
While some books featured in the tournament may see a bump in sales, the founders maintain that the purpose is simply to have some lively literary fun. “The Tournament of Books isn’t a literary prize; it’s a literary event,” Baldwin says. “It doesn’t mean anything; it’s just plain fun. I can’t emphasize that enough; this is just a fun way to explore and discuss and discover new books we think are worthy.”
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a freelance writer, editor, ghostwriter, and writing coach. His poetry collection, Ghost Gear, was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2014. His website is andrewmk.com.[Corrections: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote from the publicity announcement for the 2018 ToB to Rosecrans Baldwin. Additionally, the article incorrectly stated that “color commentary” on each match is provided on the day after the match rather than the same day, and that the judge’s decisions are posted on Goodreads.]