Game of Totes: Canvas Is Coming (Round 2: The Sweet Sixteen)

The War for the Canvas Throne began two weeks ago as 33 totes battled for the crown. In the first round, the public voted and decided who would advance. The 17 totes with the most votes (there was a tie for 16th) advanced to this round where they were seeded head-to-head and found themselves at the mercy of nine ruthless judges. The eight winners below will enter the final glorious battle at Housing Works bookstore in NYC on Monday, the 20th of April.

The final ruling tote will be decided by judges Camille Perri (Cosmopolitan’s book-editor-at-large), Saeed Jones (poet, Prelude to Bruise, BuzzFeed Literary Editor), Bev Rivero (publicist at The New Press), and Dan Wilbur (writer and comedian).The event will be hosted by Jason Diamond and Lincoln Michel, feature readings from Jen Doll and Kyle Chayka, and free wine and PBR while supplies last! Come and see who is crowned ruler of the literary tote world.

Iron throne

Let the next round of tote bloodshed begin:




WILD CARD: Biblioasis (16T) vs. Knopf (16T)

Let’s get this out of the way: Biblioasis wins.

I do really like that Knopf’s entry might lead to a marriage at some point in the future. Maybe a dreamy stranger will read your tote bag and ask you what you’ve been reading and from this, eternal love will blossom. And the possibility of eternal love gets some points and sympathy.

But Biblioasis. Biblioasis dropped an F bomb on their tote. They have what appears to be an actual dire wolf modelling their tote. On these two merits alone, they would advance. But also, Biblioasis’s tote is bragging about how awesome Biblioasis is, I like this. We here at Game of Totes like this. I was personally not aware of Biblioasis before this competition, but on the strength of their tote, I now want to buy all of their things. The tote therefore accomplished it’s intended goal. Biblioasis wins. Canadian winter is coming.

WINNER: Biblioasis

JUDGE: Max Neely-Cohen (Author, Echo of the Boom)




Melville House (1) vs. Biblioasis (16)

Melville House has always been the indie publisher with teeth. It approaches literature and publishing with a kind of snark and swagger that’s snobbishly self-aware. With the a single quote — Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” — the Melville House tote has captured exactly what makes the prickly publisher special. It’s not just clever, it’s an intriguing identifier of literary culture.

If the Biblioasis tote accomplishes anything, it’s proving that designing a great tote requires more thought than just slapping some text on a bag. The uneven type design isn’t ugly, but it’s a bit lazy. Plus “Ten Years of Fucking Awesome Books” sounds like you’ve been having sex with books for a decade. More than that, the Biblioasis tote feels juvenile to me, like the fifth grade bully who curses to make him/herself appear tough and cool. You can’t fake attitude. Well, I mean, you can try. But you might end up with an annoying tote.

WINNER: Melville House

JUDGE: Kevin Nguyen (Editorial Director at Oyster)




Tin House (8T) vs. Blunderbuss (8T)

To pick a winner in this match between Blunderbuss Magazine and Tin House, I simply asked myself, Which of these two tote bags does a better job at making me want to read a book? The winner happens to be the one I find more beautiful and happens to be the one that makes me happier to live on this planet, but mostly it’s about being the one that made me want to read a book and that’s why I chose Tin House’s. While staring at these two tote bags, both of which I like very much, I realized, Hey, I have a copy of the Whitman Illuminated Tin House published and I wonder if it is as wonderful as I remember it to be. It is. Both the tote bag and the book are illustrated by Allen Crawford and the book is glorious and labyrinthine and filled with delicate humans and fanciful monsters, like whatever that antlered Gryphon Whitman on the tote bag is. Seeing that tote bag made me need to look at that book and that’s enough to make it the winning tote bag. Also, of course I had to pick the poetry tote bag. And also, that Gryphon Whitman could easily be my favorite character in Harry Potter 8, so that’s even more bonus points and of course Tin House wins it.

WINNER: Tin House

JUDGE: Kenneth Coble (Bookseller, Elliott Bay Books)




Poetry (4) vs. Lit Hub (28)

It was a very tough decision, but I’ve decided to vote in favor of Lit Hub.

My verdict:

I have to give it to Lit Hub for creating a simple, monochrome tote that harnesses the perpetual cool of Joan Didion. It also creates a high standard for the quality of books I’d put in it–I have to image she’d be judging–and hopefully approving- her tote’s contents. What’s more, I think whether or not people recognize who the picture is of could work as a litmus test for how well I’d get along with them. I’d be deep in the stacks of some independent bookstore in a new city with the tote slung over my shoulder. A stranger–probably handsome, probably bearded, definitely with glasses–gestures to the bag. “Joan Didion, huh?” We get coffee in a café and before long, we’ll have descended into a literary love affair, gazing meaningfully into each other’s eyes and reading passages from Play It as It Lays to each other in bed. Of course, we both eventually cannibalize the experience of our bitter breakup for literature, and the tote will just become a bitter reminder of him and the transient nature of all happiness, but that’s not the tote’s fault. Team Joan Tote!


JUDGE: Dana Schwartz (Guy in Your MFA & Dystopian YA)




Riverhead (5) vs. Jai-Alai (12)

If we lived in an ideal world, I would be wearing both of these tote bags right now — one on each shoulder, with one of my cats inside each — and I would be judging this face-off based on how well the bags held the cats (and how good the resulting photos were). An additional criterion would be whether the cats curled up on either of the bags once I took them off and casually strewed them on the couch.

But we do not live in an ideal world. No, we live in the cruel, imperfect world that is the internet, and so I am left to judge these two tote bags based on their images. (Which, incidentally, is also how collectors judge paintings they’re considering dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on, so, you know, could be worse.)

Because I am unable to make them, I am a sucker for puns, and so when I first saw JOYCE CAROL TOTES, I thought for sure my vote would go to Jai-Alai. But over the course of the past few days, I’ve found my judgment shifting… Because that Riverhead bag is pretty. And it’s so nice how the books look like they’re part of the waves, which while we’re at it sort of look like cat ears. And now I’m picturing cats reading books as they lazily float down a river, and how can you say no to a bag that gives your mind such blissed-out weirdness?

What’s more, because we live in the world of the internet (even when we’re IRL), Jai-Alai’s tote — although extremely clever — does come with one potential hazard: people who see you wearing it might think you like Joyce Carol Oates’s Twitter feed. And that would be…uncomfortable. Better, I think, to take the Joyce Carol Oates novel, put it in the Riverhead Books tote, and carry it with you to wherever you need.

WINNER: Riverhead

JUDGE: Jillian Steinhauer (Senior editor at Hyperallergic)




Out of Print (2) vs. Litograph (15)

Out of Print has a nice library theme going on. I love the promise of a brand new card with no, um, baggage — no fines to pay on this one. But maybe it’s too clean. Litographs’s Great Gatsby tote bag has 20K words from the novel built into its art. With this tote bag you don’t even need a phone to play with in order to quell your social anxiety (I’m assuming you have some form of social anxiety if you are heatedly following Game of Totes). You can avoid the world simply by getting lost in reading your bag.

WINNER: Litograph

JUDGE: Maris Kreizman (Slaughterhouse 90210)




BOMB Magazine (7) vs. O, Miami (10)

O, Miami gets points for their Game of Thrones joke with me — I love it, and the Flamingo is good, but… I give this one to BOMB. “If you read something say something” makes a creepy NSA moment into something about literary enthusiasm and the darker color is better for when the bag smacks your coffee hand and it splashes on the bag. Unless that O, Miami bag is coffee proof, BOMB is the one I’d take.


JUDGE: Alexander Chee (Author, The Queen of the Night)




Gigantic (3) vs. The Strand (14)

While I respect The Strand’s efforts to put a new spin on a go-to tote (big-ups to being the branded bag most seen in New York City), I’d have to go with Gigantic’s efforts here. Sure, “The Whale” is a little on-the-nose for a literary bag, but I have to say it’s too cute for me to pick anything else.

WINNER: Gigantic

JUDGE: Tyler Coates (Deputy Editor of Decider)




OR Books (6) vs. The New Inquiry (11)

Okay, tote fiends, so this is how it went down. I considered three things: visual design, quality of material, and what it can carry. Both OR Books and The New Inquiry totes were on the lighter side of the canvas spectrum, so there was no clear winner there; same size too (enough to hold a few books, a magazine, a wallet, but not really big enough to cram a drink and lunch into without fear of disfiguring). Needless to say, neither of these totes could carry an animal, unless they were of the gerbil/ferret varietal. Ok, so on to design. While I love (crush-crush-crush) Eileen Myles, the font of the OR books bag reminds me too much of all the other HelveticAmericanApparel-esque totes and t-shirts out there. It was a tough call, but since skewering tiny businessmen with my eye-blades is second in my book only to reading, The New Inquiry tote won this round.

WINNER: The New Inquiry

JUDGE: Nadxi Nieto (Writer and designer)


Which of these eight winning totes will be the one true tote king? Come out to Housing Works on April 20th to find out! And be sure to come wearing your favorite tote!

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