Early last year, an Associated Press poll reported that 49 percent of Americans identified as National Football League fans. In 2013, more than 74 million people attended a Major League Baseball game. The NBA has built one of the largest social media communities in the world, reaching more than 625 million people across all league, team and player pages on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
With sports so ubiquitous in our everyday lives – on the news, in the break room at work, on the radio during dinner prep – it is surprising that sports stories make up a relatively small part of the contemporary fiction market.
Athletics does, however, offer a fertile ground of inspiration for writers. There’s drama, colorful characters, feats of physical strength and mental tenacity, triumph and defeat. And some writers have successfully harnessed this potential to bring stories to life under the umbrella of sport. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach tells the story of small Midwestern college and its baseball team. The New York Times included the novel in its “10 Best Books of 2011” list, and Amazon named it the best book of the year. The Natural by Bernard Malamud and End Zone by Don DeLillo have become classics since their publications in 1952 and 1972, respectively. David Foster Wallace centered his 1996 work Infinite Jest on a youth tennis academy. Across the pond, British author David Peace told his The Damned Utd from the perspective of a football club manager, and the film version starring Michael Sheen was released in 2009.
Robert Bloom, an associate editor at DoubleDay, found himself plunged into the world of sports fiction via Nick Taylor’s 2014 baseball detective novel The Setup Man (published under the pen name T.T. Monday). “There isn’t a whole lot [of sports fiction] out there,” Bloom says. “But what connected me with The Setup Man was a great story and a great voice. I was definitely not looking for a baseball thriller, because I’m sane.”
Maybe you’d have to be insane to go out looking for a baseball thriller, but a baseball biography almost guarantees success. Sports nonfiction such as Friday Night Lights (H.G. Bissinger, 1990), The Blind Side (Michael Lewis, 2006), Moneyball (also Michael Lewis, 2004), Seabiscuit (Laura Hillenbrand, 2001) and countless celebrity sports biographies have earned publishers millions, and top editors and agents are always on the lookout for the next retiring sports star who might wish to publish his or her memoir.
Taylor, author of The Setup Man, sees it like this: “Celebrity sells the [nonfiction sports] book. Mariano Rivera’s book just came out. People buy that book whether it’s good or bad. They just want to hear Mariano Rivera’s story, because it’s an amazing story, and who knows, it maybe be written horribly, but it doesn’t have to stand on its own merits. It stands on Mariano Rivera’s merits.”
But what draws the reader to a book such as Friday Night Lights? The characters are high school football players, perhaps heroes in their hometown of Odessa, Texas, but not outside of it, at least not until the book, and later the movie, immortalizes them.
The “true story” or “based on actual events” aspect of nonfiction lends these books an element of legitimacy. The characters in nonfiction overcome real challenges and triumph with real skill and talent, which can be inspiring to read about. In fiction, extraordinary achievements are but the invention of the author, not impressive on their own. They must be coupled with deep, intriguing characters and an intricate plot to warrant the reader taking the time to consume the story.
The author-editor duo behind The Setup Man was quick to highlight the necessity of developing one’s characters in sports novels.
“Maybe the trick, or the trap, is that people forget that there needs to be deep characters,” says Bloom. He admits the formula is elusive. “When it works, it seems so effortless that you’re like, why doesn’t everyone just do this?”
When asked about the biggest mistake a writer could make in a piece of sports-themed fiction, Taylor says, “Not developing your characters enough, thinking that the reader is going to care about the team. What they’re going to care about is the people on the team and your character, and the stakes for your character might be different than the stakes for the team.”
Developing characters in a sports novel means building the mind and body of an athlete from the ground up, and this can be complicated. Physical abilities often define an athlete, but as a writer, you have to go beyond that and uncover the character’s emotional attachment to his or her sport and decide on the particulars of life off the field and outside of the gym.
In an attempt to increase the intrigue of The Setup Man’s main character Johnny Adcock, Taylor turned the jock stereotype on its head.
“We perceive that athletes are not thoughtful and [are] reactionary. It’s the stereotype of the big, dumb jock. I think it makes for interesting fiction when you present something that is not that,” he explains. “I have this character who is laconic and thoughtful and cynical and curious, but also restless. Rich, but dissatisfied.”
Taylor also had to make sure that readers bought into Adcock’s authenticity as a pro baseball player.
This question of authenticity often emerges in the writing of sports fiction. Sports fans are a finicky lot, nerdish in their own way about their sport and quick to point out errors. An author’s knowledge of the sport he or she chooses to fictionalize is important.
Some authors glean authenticity from experience as athletes. Harlan Coben, for example, played basketball at Amherst College, which later helped him write the Myron Bolitar series about a star basketball player-turned sports agent. Others, such as Mike Lupica and Robert Lipsyte, entered the sports fiction field through sports reporting, earning their street cred by covering professional sports as journalists for years before delving into the genre’s fictional possibilities.
Taylor, who stopped playing baseball at 13, however, dismisses the idea that you have to have played the sport you’re writing about at a high level to be successful, even though many readers assume “T.T. Monday” is a former professional baseball player after reading The Setup Man. “You don’t need that any more than you need to be a private eye to write about being a private eye, or a cop to write about being a cop,” he says. “A good writer can always fake it.”
But, he says, you had better do your homework, because the particulars of the world you choose to set your story in are yours to get wrong. However, a little bit of jargon and “inside baseball” details go a long way, something Taylor learned while writing his first two novels, both historical fiction.
“You have to create the illusion that the book is dense with jargon and historical detail but have it be readable to a modern audience,” he says. “It’s like a stage set. If you’re painting a wall that supposed to be made of wooden boards, you just take the paintbrush with a lighter or darker color than the background and you drag it down and it looks like wood grain, but it’s just paint. It’s like that when you’re trying to create historical verisimilitude or this kind of baseball-world verisimilitude. A little bit of specialized vocabulary goes a long way.”
Taylor didn’t do a single interview with a pro baseball player in preparation for his novel. Instead, the lifelong baseball fan relied on the thousands of games he had watched, books he had read and blogs he follows to help his fictional team and characters achieve the sense of reality that made them so captivating.
“I kept thinking if it feels accurate, did I really just make it all up?” Taylor asks himself. “I think actually, I didn’t. The research is already done; you just have to go read it.”
He laughed about what would happen if he did find his way into the press room. “My inclination would be, ‘Wow, that’s Buster Posey.’ Or, ‘That’s Hunter Pence. He is really muscular! He looks so big in person!’ I wouldn’t be able to get past that.”
Another challenge sports novels face is athletics’ image problem within the book publishing and writing communities. The Atlantic Monthly’s 2011 story “Why Are Great Sporting Novels Like ‘The Art of Fielding’ So Rare” by Reeves Wiedeman featured Harbach’s novel, but contemplated the genre as a whole. “Perhaps [sports] will always be treated as a diversion,” Wiedeman writes, “no matter the heavy literary names that are attached.”
Rick Reilly, a sportswriter for ESPN and Sports Illustrated, wrote in his 2007 column “Why I Love My Job” that in college, his journalism professor told him he was “too good for sports.” Reilly chose to ignore her suggestion, but the incident highlights the opinion of the literary world that good writers shouldn’t bother chronicling sports.
This perception has likely kept some astute writers from turning their focus to sports and athletes, thus perpetuating the stereotype that only mediocre writers cover sports. But writers who love sports and recognize the plethora of touching, thrilling and shocking stories to be unearthed in locker rooms, stadiums and high school gyms shouldn’t shy away from using their athletic inclinations for inspiration. After all, 74 million baseball game attendees and 625 million NBA followers can’t be wrong.
One place sports novels succeed as a rule is on the children’s and young adult shelves. Authors such as Chris Crutcher, Robert Lipsyte, Mike Lupica, Matt de la Peña and the late Walter Dean Meyers use sports to fatten up their YA fiction to great acclaim, each with his own unique approach to the subgenre.
Crutcher writes unfailingly dark stories, filled with racism, abusive parents, alcoholism, death and disability. He includes gay characters and doesn’t shy away from sexual content. These themes, inspired by his experiences as a teacher and administrator at a K-12 alternative school in the 1970s, have led many school, libraries and parents to ban his books. Despite their efforts, five of his books appeared on the American Library Association’s “100 Best Books for Teens of the 20th Century.”
Lupica and Lipsyte take a more in-the-game approach to telling kids’ sports stories, but retain the themes of family, emotional struggle and identity that make their books about so much more than the athlete in question’s performance on the field or court.
“The best sports writing for adults and for young readers,” writes English teacher and writer Dean Schneider in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, “has always been lean and muscular, with an emphasis on active verbs and concrete nouns and spare sentences that dance, a style perhaps the truest heir of Hemingway’s revolution in prose style in the twentieth century.”
One great advantage about writing sports stories for kids is that your main character doesn’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be, a pro. Kids prefer to read about other kids, so you can bypass the complications of pro-league specifics and history and focus on the basics of the sport and developing interesting characters and a well-told story.
You might notice that not a single female novelist is mentioned in this article, and there’s no good explanation for that, especially in our post-Title IX era of empowered female athletes. Some women have built strong reputations writing nonfiction about sports (notably, about horse racing: Laura Hildebrand, Elizabeth Letts, Linda Carroll), and a few have begun to emerge as leaders in the YA genre. Miranda Kenneally skillfully blends teen romance and football, marathon running, softball and even horse racing, and former pro athletes Dominique Moceanu (1996 Olympic gold medal gymnast), Georgina Bloomberg (former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s daughter and a pro equestrian rider) and Monica Seles (former tennis pro) have each launched young adult series about their respective sports. But in the realm of adult sports-themed fiction written by women you’ll find…practically nothing. A smattering of romances, but even those, the titles of which feature a range of bad sports innuendos (Knockout, Reaching First, Hardball, Body Check) usually feature only male athletes and the women who pursue them, making them even more of an empty victory. One successful title we’ve found is Tabitha King’s Survivor, in which the main character marries a hockey star. King vividly captures the road trips, practices and games that make the sports element of the novel come to life, while telling a story rife with conflict and emotion.
A GAME FOR SCRIBES
When browsing the collection of novels about sports, it quickly becomes clear that one sport is a favorite of writers and readers alike: baseball.
The Atlantic’s Wiedeman, who claims that most good sports novels are about baseball, says, “[Baseball] is a team game, affording authors the ability to explore relationships between teammates, coaches and opponents. But it’s also a game with extreme moments of aloneness: Individual triumph and individual failure are what we remember.”
Nick Taylor, author of The Setup Man, highlighted another advantage of writing about America’s Pastime: “[Baseball has] been played professionally for so long it’s got a weight of tradition behind it, and there’s a weight of tradition in baseball writing that you can tap into.”
The American public generally understands baseball, so you also avoid the problem of limiting your audience by picking a less-followed and understood sport like rugby or motocross, for which you would have to spend time establishing the ground rules and culture of the sport.
Or perhaps the answer lies in George Plimpton’s small-ball theory. “There seems to be a correlation between the standard of writing about a particular sport and the ball it utilizes,” he wrote in the 1992 essay “The Smaller the Ball, the Better the Book,” published in The New York Times. “The smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature. There are superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not many good books about football or soccer, very few good books about basketball and no good books at all about beach balls.”
Megan Kaplon is editor of Volleyball magazine and contributing editor at The Writer.