This month marks the ninth year of my involvement with the Tournament of Books.
What is this Tournament of Books, you say?
The easiest way of describing it is that it is a college basketball March Madness-style contest, only for books instead of basketball. Starting with a bracket of 16 works of fiction (18 this year, because we have a “play-in” game), a judge reads each pairing and declares a “winner” until we get down to the final two books when all of the previously participating judges choose their favorite and the book with the most votes wins.
There’s some other wrinkles, including a “zombie round” where two previously eliminated books are resurrected according to a previously conducted popular vote of readers. Mostly it’s an excuse to spend a month pretending books matter with a group of people who believe it to be true.
My role is that of “color commentator.” Along with my friend and frequent collaborator Kevin Guilfoile, we opine regarding each day’s judgment: the books themselves, the larger literary and publishing landscape, and when we run out of things to say in the later rounds, why Nicholas Sparks is such a jerk.
I’ve been with the tournament for nine years because some people I liked and respected asked me if I wanted to be involved and I said, “sure, why not?”
In reflecting on that decision, or non-decision, since I didn’t even consider it, I realize how nine years on, I’m much less likely to go with “sure, why not?” when confronted with some fresh opportunity.
Now, I am much more likely to engage in a calculus that asks, “what’s in it for me?” Most of the time what I’m really wondering is if it provides additional immediate compensation or increase in status that will lead to some foreseeable future increase in compensation.
When I say “compensation,” what I mean is “money.”
There’s some good reasons for this. I am busier than I was nine years ago. To take on something new may mean jettisoning a current project. Blogs don’t just write themselves, you know. I’m also much more likely to be getting paid when I write now, with something like an 80/20 ratio of paying to speculative work, whereas nine years ago, it was 10/90 in the other direction.
But reflecting on the benefits I’ve reaped over the nine years of being associated with the Tournament of Books shows that I was fortunate to say “sure, why not?” and that I’d be wise to remember that less calculating self more often.
There’s some obvious, quantifiable benefits I can name. These days, when it comes to selling book projects to publishers, it’s important for writers to have a “platform,” and given that the Tournament of Books is passionately followed by passionate readers, it’s a nice thing to be able to point towards when asked how people are going to know my work exists.
More directly, several years ago, at a loss for anything to say during one day’s commentary, I invented a persona called the “Biblioracle,” who is a clairvoyant when it comes to recommending books. If you tell him (me) the last five books you’ve read, he’ll tell you what to read next with unerring accuracy. This off-the-cuff gimmick ultimately led to a steady gig writing a column for the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row book supplement, the kind of work that any freelance writer dreams about.
More important, though, are the less tangible benefits. Reading the tournament-selected books each year and being forced to think deeply about them and express those thoughts in the form of these commentaries has really been my version of academic scholarship, an activity that is not required, and not necessarily even encouraged of NTT faculty.
I’ve “learned” more about writing through this directed reading and conversation than any other experience in my entire life, including my three years of graduate study.
That study has informed my teaching and my own writing in ways I probably don’t fully understand, let alone can articulate. I do know that without the tournament, I never would’ve finished a publishable novel. I know that I would be less invested as a “literary citizen.” Without saying, “sure, why not?” my life quite literally wouldn’t be the same.
I’d be poorer in every sense of the word.
I imagine that tenure-line faculty encounter some similar turbulence when opportunities arise. When on the tenure or promotion clock, it must be pretty much a requirement to say “no thanks” to any activity that isn’t going to “count.” If I’d been in a tenure-line job, I would’ve probably said no to the Tournament of Books. Even though I think some of the commentaries (once you remove the Kim Kardashian jokes) are well-worthy of “credit,” I can’t imagine a tenure review committee looking at the work with anything other than puzzlement.
But if one of the goals of being an academic is to spread the gospel of their discipline to the public at large (and why shouldn’t it be?), I’ve done more good being part of the Tournament of Books than anything else in my entire career.
We’ll be conducting our madness all of March. Over the years a robust and opinionated group of readers and commenters has incalculably enriched the process. We’d love to have you join us.
“Sure, why not?”