Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Everything I Learned about Life Came from the Sports Page

My most valuable writing experiences came from my graduate school days, when I was writing dance reviews for an arts weekly in Boston while working on my thesis. This meant that I was reading about dance as voraciously as I was reading background material for my thesis research. One of my most valuable lessons (on the dance front) came, I believe, from Agnes de Mille's To a Young Dancer, which actually had a thing or two to say to would-be writers like myself. The message was that, if you wanted to learn how to write about dance, read the sports pages. In her day that was a valuable insight, very much in the same school of thought as my editor's advice to read Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. All three of these involved writing about processes, rather than objects. They all came in settings that discouraged note-taking, since paying attention to your own writing was a distraction from the processes you were supposed to be observing. All you could do was discipline your attention to take in as much as you could; and, once it was all over, get to a typewriter as fast as you could. Sports writers often had the luxury of typewriters at the site of the game. Those of us who wrote about dance had no such luck.

Things change. I am too consumed for nostalgia for that "Golden Age" of dance about forty years ago to feel much sympathy for any performances I see today, let alone want to write about them; and, having just read Robert Lipsyte's "Descent into March Madness" on the Web site for The Nation, I realize that the sports pages are not the lessons in writing they used to be, at least where writing about processes is concerned. Lipsyte's piece is blatantly curmudgeonly, but is also about much more than college basketball, or, for that matter, sports reporting. His lead paragraph makes it clear what kind of subject matter he is going to explore:

This is the mud season of the sports calendar. While we await blessed baseball and its promise of renewal, here comes the National Collegiate Athletic Association Men's Division I Basketball Championship--the Big Dance for sportswriters, the Bracket Racket for gamblers, a frat-rat party, a racist entertainment, and a subversion of higher education, perhaps democracy as well.

This is basically the abstract of the article, where he gives us the ladder he will ascend (descend?) that proceeds from press coverage to the more critical questions of the nature of college education and (in the spirit of John Dewey) the role that education plays in a democratic society. I shall not retrace Lipsyte's steps, primarily because it is just too much fun to read his own words. I just want to focus on those final rungs.

If sports writing used to have a close affinity with writing about the performing arts, that affinity has now shifted over to that I have previously called "freak show" arenas, by which I mean the domain of politics. The affinity is now so close that is poses a chicken-and-egg question: Are political writers (perhaps like that unabashed baseball fan, George Will) adopting the style of sports writers contaminated by commercialization on just about any front imaginable; or do the sports writers realize that they are in the middle of a "freak show" of their own and had better draw upon the methods of the political writers? In a way the answer does not matter. Both domains have regressed to a new norm where the marketing of the content takes precedence over the content itself, whether that content has to do with winning a basketball tournament or getting elected to the presidency. I would even go so far as to speculate that the precedence of the marketing is so strong that the content is virtually irrelevant.

I remember once seeing a play in New York entitled Geniuses, whose author I can no longer recall. They play was "inspired" by the making of Apocalypse Now. It was a satire whose primary (but far from only) target was Francis Ford Coppola. The line that said it came when the Coppola surrogate declared that anyone could make a movie, but the real work that turned him on was making the deals. This is the sort of thing I mean when I want to argue that marketing now trumps content. Lipsyte has shown us how such thinking has dragged sports into the mud, taking higher education in its wake. If democracy is also being dragged down, it is not entirely the fault of what has happened in the sports world; but it does have to do with the fact that writing about the democratic process is suffering from the same malady as writing about sports. The writing that matters most is steadily being bludgeoned to death by those who live or die by the success of marketing copy; and, since democracy is not a "marketable commodity," we shall all be the worse if such writing ultimately succumbs to its beating.

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