My newest students beg for sports writing, and cannot abide either dragons or spaceships. They’re good kids, 8th graders who used to read voluminously for pleasure until junior high. Their parents are desperate to get them reading again. The boys are desperate to read freely again. So now I get to be desperate to learn about sports writing.
Meet the students where they are. They can’t very well meet you where they’re not.
Fortunately, I had just started reading, on my own time, The Sword and Sorcery Anthology, edited by David Hartwell and Jacob Weisman. At first, as I pulled likely prospects from the sports shelves at Barnes & Noble, I grumbled quietly to myself about how I was going to have to set The Sword and Sorcery Anthology aside, perhaps for weeks, and for what? For Babe Bleeping Ruth and Joe Bleeping DiMaggio. I settled in at the cafe to cull the candidate books in my pile and tried to find a bright side. Some of the masters of the golden age of pulp also wrote boxing stories, or stories that happened to be about boxers. For people who see athletes as heroes, sports writing might hit the same sweet spot as heroic fiction. If I had to sink my time into this stuff, I would find some way to make it serve my writing.
Something David Drake said in his introduction to The Sword and Sorcery Anthology helped me cull that pile of books, and has been with me as I’ve started picking my way through the essays.
Drake relates this anecdote from one of the greats in fantastic literature:
Manly Wade Wellman, one of the finest pure storytellers I’ve ever known, was born in 1903 in Kamundongo, Angola; Manly’s father ran the clinic there for a medical charity….
Manly’s most vivid childhood memory was of the day a ten-year-old herdboy faced the leopard that was stalking his goats and killed it with his spear. That night, there was a banquet in the boy’s honor. He was seated on the high stool with the leopard’s skin, fresh and reeking, draped over his shoulders.
From his place of honor, the boy doled out a piece of the cat’s flesh to every adult male. When they had eaten the meat that would strengthen their spirits as well as their bodies, the men each in turn chanted a song of praise to the enthroned hero, recounting and embellishing his accomplishment. He has vanquished the monster which threatened our lives and our livelihoods!
Behold the hero! Hear his mighty deeds!
This is storytelling as the Cro-Magnons practiced it, and this is the essence of sword and sorcery fiction.
Setting aside for the moment the way Drake (or maybe it was originally Wellman, I don’t know) equates these people in Angola with Cro-Magnons, I think there’s something to this description of what is elemental about storytelling.
Certainly, most of the sports writing I’ve read so far has been in the mode of Behold the hero! Hear his mighty deeds! There are other pieces, later and longer ones mostly, that are more in the tragic mode of Behold the hero! See how the mighty have fallen! It’s only a short jump to imagine some of them as tales of sword and sorcery. Consider these titles from the 2012 volume of The Best American Sports Writing:
- The Ferocious Life and Tragic Death of a Superbowl Star
- Something Went Very Wrong at Toomer’s Corner
- The Two-Fisted, One-Eyed Misadventures of Sportswriting’s Last Badass
To me, the title of “Resurrecting the Champ,” an essay by J. R. Moehringer collected in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, evokes Mary Shelley more than it does Robert E. Howard. Turns out it reads more like Raymond Chandler:
I’m sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, waiting for a call from a man who doesn’t trust me, hoping he’ll have answers about a man I don’t trust, which may clear the name of a man no one gives a damn about.
Okay, for an opening sentence like that, I’ll read about almost anything. Even sports.
It turns out David Drake’s opening anecdote, in addition to offering me a way into sports writing, also nails down for me why it is that sports writing and its subject have never done much for me. “He has vanquished the monster which threatened our lives and our livelihoods!” chant the men in the story. And what monster does the athlete vanquish in most sporting events?
No monster, just a fellow athlete. What threat does the fellow athlete pose, to anybody other than the athlete we’re reading about? In most cases, none at all. In a boxing match, two potentially decent guys beat the snot out of each other, with nothing at stake that truly matters. In a football game, dozens of young men bludgeon their brains against the insides of their skulls, and for what? For bragging rights and cash? How much patience would I have for a fictional character who did as much harm for something as trivial? The more a sport resembles sword and sorcery combat in its results, the less interested I am in it. Conflict will only get you so far when the motives are shallow. Am I a prig? Maybe I’m being a prig.
As my anthropologist friends say when they talk about ethnographic interviews, You can’t learn anything new from a person while you’re judging him. My sports-obsessed students will bring me new things worth learning, if I let them. Meanwhile, I try not to have too many assumptions about what those things will be.