Many successful projects begin as accidents. The Tournament of Books started with a bottle of wine and an argument.
The argument was about book awards, which seemed to the assembled friends, all writers and editors for an online magazine called The Morning News, to be a ridiculous exercise. How could any committee, no matter how distinguished, weed through the thousands of novels published each year and declare with confidence that one of them is better than the others?
In the context of literature, so subjective and broad, what does that even mean? One might as well declare spaghetti the best food. Or, as the folks at the Westminster Kennel Club dared to do last month, Banana Joe the affenpinscher best dog.
On the other hand, it was pointed out, we also kind of love book awards. We love the conversation, the attempt to focus the world's attention on great literature. It is so easy for books to get crowded out of the pop culture conversation. Perhaps it is the ridiculous, attention-grabbing nature of book awards that make them valuable.
And then a proposal, in the form of a joke. Or rather a joke in the form of a proposal: The Morning News should start its own book award, one that does everything a real book prize does in terms of promoting great contemporary fiction and fueling debates but at the same time pokes fun at the impossible and ridiculous nature of the entire enterprise. We should call the award The Rooster, after the greatest character in contemporary literature — on this we could all agree — David Sedaris' brother, and the winning author will be threatened with the prize of a live hen.
The Rooster would be transparent. The judges would reveal if and how they know the authors on the shortlist. Books would be seeded into brackets just like the NCAA basketball tournament. Each judge would be assigned two books to read. He or she must advance one and explain why.
There would be color commentary on each decision, from Chicago native John Warner (known to Printers Row readers as the Biblioracle) and me. From readers, there would be comments on the commentary. Each judgment, subjective and arbitrary, would expand and evolve into a (mostly) thoughtful conversation about contemporary literature.
And there would be a Zombie round, in which readers vote on their favorite novels of the year. The two best-loved books among those eliminated from the early rounds of the tourney would rise from the dead for a second chance at making the finals.
Nine years later, having already made champions of writers such as Cormac McCarthy, Junot Díaz, Toni Morrison, David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan, a new Rooster will be crowned, and crowed about, in 2013. Three of the books in contention this year have close Chicago connections. "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn lives in Chicago, while "Building Stories" author and illustrator Chris Ware lives in Oak Park. John Green, the best-selling author of "The Fault in Our Stars" is a former Chicago resident, now living in Indianapolis.
The Ninth Annual Tournament of Books, presented by Nook by Barnes & Noble, will open Monday with a first-ever play-in round, in which three acclaimed novels of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," "The Yellow Birds" and "Fobbit" — will duel for the tournament's final spot in a match judged by active-duty Army officer Nathan Bradley. You can follow all the fun of this year's competition (and also relive the drama of past tournaments) at themorningnews.org/tob.
Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two novels and a memoir, "A Drive Into the Gap." He lives in Chicago.
2005: "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell
2006: "The Accidental" by Ali Smith
2007: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy
2008: "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz
2009: "A Mercy" by Toni Morrison
2010: "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel
2011: "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan
2012: "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick DeWitt