I’ve been avoiding blogging about The Tournament of Books too much this year because if there’s one thing I learned based on previous years, it’s that faithful DGLM readers don’t seem to be particularly interested. But here I am bringing it up again—this time just to get to a point that I hope will be of more general interest.
This year, I actually read all 16 books competing, so I had firm opinions of what I thought deserved to win. My hopes have not exactly been met. But in reading the judges’ decisions and the commentator’s feedback, I feel like I’ve learned a bit about myself as a reader, which is really (I think) what the whole process is about.
The tournament’s judges seem very interested in rewarding ambition—crazy ideas and sprawling narratives have beaten out quieter, cleaner storytelling. I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of person who is more interested in a noble failure than a middling success. As it turns out, I may have been wrong about myself!
This was clear to me in the match-up between Haruki Murakami’s (endless) 1Q84 versus Natacha Appaniah’s slender The Last Brother. One book creates a new universe for its characters and sends them careening through it. The other is a brief snapshot of a historical moment. While I may not have been wowed by Appaniah’s work, I also didn’t find myself wanting to set it on fire while cursing the heavens. Seriously—that last 300 pages of 1Q84 made me doubt my faith in life itself.
In another opening match, Alan Hollinghurst’s stunning, tightly controlled, incredibly dense novel about the generational effects of one poet on the people whose lives touched his was deemed too cold while Tea Obreht’s meandering The Tiger’s Wife was swept on to round 2. Now, I like Obreht more than some other folks here, and I think she’s immensely talented. But The Tiger’s Wife is a messy novel that shows more raw talent than it does control whereas Hollinghurst’s work is taut and cohesive.
So as I read through the comments and various readers’ reactions to these different books, I find that this (admittedly limited) readership seems to fall for writers who bite off more than they can chew because their books are lively and because (and I fully agree with this), nothing will be brilliant if its creator’s ambitions aren’t equally great.
And yet…book for book, I preferred the novels that achieved their ambitions, whatever the size, substantially more than I did those that reached for the sky and ended up grasping air.
Here’s where it falls to you: assuming, of course, that you can’t have both, what do you prefer: precision or ambition?