Tournament of Books Organizers Pick the Winners of 12 Classic Literary Beefs


Today is the first day of The Morning News‘s epic annual Tournament of Books, an excellent and wordy alternative (or supplement) to March Madness for all us literary types. To celebrate, we asked the ToB’s organizers — the venerable Rosecrans Baldwin, Kevin Guilfoile, John Warner, and Andrew Womack — to act as judges for a few imaginary literary match-ups. Because who doesn’t want to imagine the results of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky throwing down? After the jump, find out who would win in a fight — Mailer or Vidal, Hemingway or Faulkner, Dorothy Parker or anybody, and more. Don’t agree? Argue your literary hearts out in the comments, and then be sure to get in on the real-life highbrow smackdown here.

Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal

Mailer. If it’s a choice between an author who punches you in the gut and one who scratches you under the skull, the ToB favors the gut-puncher every time.

William Faulkner vs. Ernest Hemingway

I could easily imagine judges who prefer Faulkner (I’d probably be one of them), but I think Hemingway would win most of the time, narrowly. It’s easier to see what Hemingway is up to, and so when a judge has to justify her liking of one over the other, Hemingway is easier to explain.

Leo Tolstoy vs. Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tolstoy in two punches. Come on.

Virginia Woolf vs. James Joyce

Woolf. Joyce would win over a lot of authors on the scope of his ambition, but Woolf has ambition to spare. Plus, obscure, Joycean wordplay isn’t the kind of thing that fares well in the tourney, and after a single reading Woolf’s high-concept stories are more fun to talk about.

Dorothy Parker vs. P.G. Wodehouse

Parker. Her line about martinis — “three and I’m under the table, four and I’m under the host” — has a missing line: “five is the magic number to feed Plum before he admits spiritualism is a crock.”

Lord Byron vs. John Keats

If People Magazine had existed in early 19th century, these two would’ve battled it out for “Fairest Man Alive.” Keats was a famous consumptive and sort of a nobody when he died, himself declaring that his name was “writ in water.” But “Ode on a Grecian Urn” seems stamped permanently in the canon. Victory Keats.

J.R.R. Tolkien vs. C.S. Lewis

Tolkien and Lewis were equals, friends, and used to drink together at the Eagle and Child in Oxford. But only one got the Peter Jackson treatment for longevity. Winner: Tolkien.

Franz Kafka vs. Nikolai Gogol

This is a toughie. You’d imagine “the Jewish question” might come up — Kafka being Jewish, Gogol being a man who loved a money-lending character. But Kafka’s the Velvet Underground of writers; he’s inspired more people to become writers than Elizabeth Gilbert. Win to Kafka.

Charles Bukowski vs. William S. Burroughs

Both are better known for their reputations than their writings; both weren’t very good writers; Bukowski was the better.

Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman

An actual literary battle, given that Hellman sued McCarthy over McCarthy’s crack on the Dick Cavett Show that “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” McCarthy wrote both a lasting memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and fiction, The Group, while Hellman is primarily remembered for suing Mary McCarthy. McCarthy wins.

Charles Baudelaire vs. Voltaire

Baudelaire wrote The Flowers of Evil — enough said.

Jane Austen vs. Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre is not easily dismissed, but can’t stand up to the collective greatness of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, not to mention Austen’s continuing cultural relevance, i.e., The Jane Austen Book Club, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Austen defeats all comers.

Your judges: Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down and You Lost Me There. He is a co-founder of The Morning News.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two novels, Cast of Shadows and The Thousand, that have been translated into more than 20 languages. His latest book, a memoir, is A Drive into the Gap.

John Warner is the author of The Funny Man, and, as his alter ego, The Biblioracle, a weekly columnist for the Chicago Tribune Printers Row book supplement. He teaches at the College of Charleston.

Andrew Womack is a co-founder of The Morning News.