The Architecture of a Terrible Sports Book
After a week of encountering non-stop deadlines, meeting another one seemed inadvisable, a guarantee of garbled phrases and clumsy metaphors. Sensing this, my brain shut down all avenues of creative thought save for those that have served me since puberty. I wrote a wobbly email to my editors, Lauren Roberts and Nicki Leone, essentially promising my first-born child if I could forget about the column and eat my way through New Year’s.
Lauren did what excellent editors do—she offered suggestions. I dismissed them. Then, she wrote the following: “I know that writing about a bad book can sometimes be easier. Is something on how sports books are bad do-able? Or how they can turn you off (in general)? Or something along those lines?”
And that’s how we got to where we are now.
One of the nice things about BiblioBuffet is that I can read anything related to sports. I tend not to write about bad books except when doing so illuminates a larger point or provides a lesson. In keeping with that mission, I frequently abandon books that are lousy. I get no joy in being a know-it-all who covers his criticism in a thick coat of bile. It’s tempting to go that route, because writing a review of something I hate is positively cleansing. Plus, the reasons are easily accessible and piping hot. I just open the Microsoft Word document and vent.
What gets me to that point with a sports book usually involves one or more of the following.
Hero Worship: Every time an author writes a book revealing that a legendary athlete is a (gasp) flawed soul, there’s inevitably outrage from a few wronged individuals. It usually goes something like this: “How could you dishonor the memory of [insert name here]? He/she was my childhood hero and represented my [insert team name/city/state] with honor and grace. Your book is a pack of lies, you no-talent hack.”
Come on. I’d rather read an impeccably researched book that portrays an athlete as a human being than one that perpetuates the cycle of myth-making fellatio practiced by journalists, broadcasters, and pundits. Yet I’ve read books that are unabashed valentines to athletes, and I find myself feeling sad for the author and the readers. Are we really so sheltered that we can’t bear to learn the truth? Can we not just bask in the athlete’s performance on the field and realize that they’re mortal off it, just like anyone else? Sports are a great way to feel young again, but that doesn’t mean we have to act like ten year olds who just learned Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
Terrible Writing: Sports provide unfortunate opportunities for writers to not only god up the players, but their activities. That can lead to some stupendously awful writing, like one book I read over the summer where an author wrote that a cannon-armed quarterback could “throw a football through a car wash without it getting wet.” The author maintained this style throughout, so by the end I felt as whipped as a prize bull before Sunday supper.
Melvin Mencher, the author of News Reporting and Writing, my college textbook, explains that good sportswriting is simple. “Direct, slender, purposive prose flows naturally from the event. Sports has the built-in essentials of drama—conflict, leading characters, dramatic resolutions,” Mencher writes. “There are enough incidents and examples to highlight the event: anecdotes that illustrate the situation; high-quality quotations that reveal the nature of the individual and the event.”
A Lack of Honesty: The biggest flaw of most sports-related memoirs. Naïve readers buy a book by a coach or superstar athlete, convinced they will see the real side of their hero, when they’re only seeing the side the subject wants them to see. That’s why I'd rather read Ian O’Connor’s book on Derek Jeter than Jeter’s own autobiography. O’Connor has less to lose, so readers have more to gain.
Too Many Game Recaps: I can use the Internet to retrieve articles and box scores from just about any era. If I’m lucky, I can even track down game footage on YouTube. Some writers haven’t realized that we live in a golden age of information. Reading the recent autobiography of an almost famous New York baseball player, I was astonished to find page after page of game summaries. And it wasn’t the author’s interpretation of those events—how he felt, what he was doing—it was play-by-play.
Let me put this in non-sports terms. Say you’re reading a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. when you arrive at the section covering his “I Have a Dream” speech.
What if it that section’s lone highlight was the text of that speech, sprinkled with a few details culled from the old AP story? You would feel short changed, and rightly so. Well, that’s how I feel every time I read a book where highlights replace insight.
Mixing First-Person Accounts with Reporting: Unless your name is Susan Orlean or you have the ability to blend those two warring concepts—Roger Kahn did that in his masterful Boys of Summer; Jane Leavy used her unfortunate encounter with Mickey Mantle to great effect in The Last Boy—authors needs to keep themselves away from the narrative.
Awful Reporting: Do the following before purchasing a sports book, or any non-fiction title: see how many people the author interviewed. The more sources, the better a writer can tell a story. And I don’t want teammates’ recollections. Give me anecdotes from childhood friends, little league coaches, beat reporters, neighbors, front office employees, ex-wives. If I read a book and think, “Gee, I could have done a better job reporting,” then the author has failed.
May 2012 be blissfully free of all such failures, and happily full of books as compelling to read as their subjects are to watch with a roomful of friends and an endless supply of chili and nacho chips.
Books mentioned in this column: