The rise of literary sportswriting, on two shores

I love this piece from Simon Kuper about the rise of contemporary sporting literature in Britain, written last month as the 25th William Hill Sports Book of the Year winner was to be named.

Kuper’s a former winner of the award. His “Football Against the Enemy,” published in 1994, was essential reading for this American grasping to understand soccer as a global cultural phenomenon as the World Cup came to the U.S. that year.

9780140237290_p0_v1_s260x420In his essay for The Financial Times, Kuper points to Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” the 1992 William Hill winner, for triggering a literary sports renaissance in the U.K. Or, rather, the beginnings of a genre that had enjoyed a stronger connection to leading literary lights in America.

As Kuper notes, Hornby was influenced by Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” which in turn evolved from the literature of former sportswriters Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon and Norman Mailer, among others.

At the same time, Britain’s best literary stylists rarely wrote about sports until the 1990s (the cricket classic “Beyond a Boundary” was written by Trinidadian CLR James):

In sports writing, we owe it all to American cultural imperialism.

The British soccer “fanzine” When Saturday Comes has done some book publishing. “Tor! The Story of German Football” is perhaps its most notable title, first published in 2003 and recently updated (new excerpt here on the WSC site about Borussia Dortmund’s connection to the national team).

The soccer memoir market continues to proliferate in Britain, and former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has offered his latest.

At the same time, the literary sportswriting field in America is taking on new dimensions (as I wrote about last year) in a “longform” trend that is encouraging, to a certain degree:

This kind of in-depth sports writing has become more necessary as daily sports journalism has got harder. After the early 1990s, when satellite TV channels began showing endless sport, newspapers and websites expanded their sports coverage. Many men devour it. To quote Andrew Card, chief of staff of former US president George W Bush: “He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports page every day.” Noam Chomsky, the celebrated American political thinker, argues that any “serious media critique” needs to look at sport and soap operas: “These are the types of things which occupy most of the media – most of it isn’t shaping the news about El Salvador for politically articulate people, it’s diverting the general population from things that really matter.”

However, as sports clubs grew richer on the new TV money, they became more media-savvy. Now they control and limit sports journalism. Players get “media training”, press officers censor interviews and sports journalists are corralled into the manufactured pseudo-events that are press conferences.

But while the most recent William Hill winner is written up in The Guardian, American sports media observers are largely concerned with what’s on television and what ratings it gets, the off-camera soap-opera at ESPN and letting us know when they’re going on radio and TV to talk about all this. 9781250031358_p0_v3_s260x420

None of them, as far as I can tell, paid much attention to the winner of the recent PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (It’s Mark Kram Jr., author of  “Like Any Normal Day,” about what happens to a star high school quarterback and his family when he becomes a quadriplegic.)

While this is relatively new honor — first awarded in 2010 —  it pays homage to a rich literary tradition that has deep American roots. Along with a fairly new lifetime achievement companion award, I’d like to think that this could spark a revival of the genre here.

Sportswriting in the U.K. isn’t without snark and celebrity obsession. But I think the reason sports books and literary sportswriting are treated differently there is because is because its general literary culture is a stronger component of its popular culture.

Over here it’s niche fare. But in a culture in which sports is reduced to mere entertainment, that shouldn’t be such a surprise.

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