Speak Out or Shut Up
Aside from BiblioBuffet, I review books for two other places. One of them, a venerable trade publication, doesn’t tell me what it’s sending to my doorstop. When I come across the yellow package, all I know is that the contents will be sports-related. There are perks to this arrangement. It’s great to be remembered by any magazine with an ample freelance budget, and there’s a giddy anticipation that accompanies seeing what’s inside. Will I get a sneak peek at a new biography, or a collection of sharply written essays? Am I going to discover a new classic?
A couple of weeks ago, I tore open another mystery package. My eyes greeted the cover. Then, my heart sank. I was reviewing a sports memoir. Again, I’m grateful that editors keep me in mind for assignments—besides, I’ll happily consume anything vaguely related to sports—but getting a memoir always makes me feel like a nine-year-old getting tube socks on Christmas morning.
It’s not that I hate memoirs. I love them because a gifted writer can generate an intimacy and offer a life perspective that is enlightening and inspiring. Sports memoirs don’t work that way. Yes, you do have the occasional effort that slaps you across the face with its honesty, like Pat Jordan’s A False Spring or Andre Agassi’s Open. But most of them are awful. They are plump with platitudes, use exclamation points (the halter top of the punctuation family) with impunity, and follow the same outline:
How can any reader expect an honest portrait when the subject is a slave to a formula? They cannot. Don’t expect anything to change. With rare exceptions, people in sports have learned that there’s little good in being completely honest with the public. Words get twisted and posted on Twitter or Facebook or another artery of the quickly expanding social network. There’s a good reason why Derek Jeter (the subject of an upcoming biography) says nothing insightful, and why most athletes keep their thoughts relegated to 140 characters: It’s not worth the aggravation of a public who desperately wants athletes to be human, but are equally willing to crucify them for displaying our qualities.
But the typical template doesn’t help matters with that phony overture of intimacy, declaring that the lives of athletes and us Joe Meatballs are quite similar. Who are we kidding? The reason why Agassi and Jordan’s books were so good is that they didn’t pretend to befriend the reader. The authors simply recounted their mistakes and how they survived the consequences. Their honesty kept us engaged. Heartwarming, rehashed parables that are more fitting for the keynote address at a business convention don’t show us a human being but a person determined not to let his or her guard down.
That isn’t acceptable. If you’re going to participate in a genre that requires baring your soul, you must go the full monty. Great, recent memoirs like Made for You and Me and The Tender Bar would have been unreadable if authors Caitlin Shetterly and J.R. Moehringer (who ghostwrote Open) held back. Critics would have vilified them for being dishonest. The same standards should apply for sports memoirs: No one should be congratulated just for trying, or for commenting on more than what kind of defense the opposition provided.
Sportswriters serve an essential need, because they report what athletes and front office folk try so hard to hide—that sports are full of drama and strife and fascinating stories. Howard Bryant’s biography of Henry Aaron—who reluctantly cooperated—told us more about the great ballplayer than Aaron’s own autobiography. Richard Ben Cramer, Leigh Montville, and David Maraniss defined three inscrutable sports icons—Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Vince Lombardi. Public figures rarely offer full disclosure. Those in the world of athletics better adjust, or someone will do that for them. An upbeat, barely-there memoir is no longer a suitable requirement.
Everyone deserves better. And I want to open future packages with confidence.
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Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.