In the furnace of the sporting psyche

Last week, while I was away marking the first anniversary of my mom’s passing, Gary Smith retired from active feature-writing for/with Sports Illustrated.

Journalists (who wish they could write like Gary while knowing they never can) and readers (who wish we could look forward to a life-long supply of sportswriting with the Gary seal of quality) mourned the news.

Why is the retirement of a sportswriter that big a deal? Here is an earliest post (November 9, 2009) that attempts to capture some small part of the man’s magic:

Sport comes to us in boxes – the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to bust out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game – before it, after it, above it or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche. Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down to those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes as well.

That clip is from one of my favorite sports writers of all time; specifically, it is taken from the preface to Gary Smith’s Beyond the Game.

Beyond the game

Sports journalism, done right

For a flavor of how Smith writes, try these stories: The Chosen One, a December 1996 profile of Tiger Woods; Damned Yankee, the story of the man who was widely regarded as the heir to the Yogi Berra mantle until a photographer clicked a picture that changed his life forever;  Coming Into Focus, his 2006 profile of Andre Agassi;  Moment of Truth, a story written around a camera verite moment in a locker room; Blindsided by History, the tragic tale of unintended consequences arising out of segregationists’ attempts to keep black students out of an Arkansas school; and Remember his Name, the story of Pat Tillman, who turned his back on a multi-million NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals and, in the aftermath of 9/11, enlisted in the United States army in 2002 and died in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. [One of my personal favorites, though it appears to be unavailable online, is Rapture in the Deep — the story of competitive free-diving ace Pipin Ferreras and of Audrey Mestre, the woman who fell in love with him, bought into his passion for the incredibly dangerous sport, and died in 2002 while attempting to break a world record.]

The prompt for this post comes from a Joel Achenbach article I just read in the Washington Post where, against the backdrop of the internet, blogs and social media, he celebrates the craft of the extended narrative in general, and Smith’s work with Sports Illustrated in particular. From his article:

There’s endless talk in the news media about the next killer app. Maybe Twitter really will change the world. Maybe the next big thing will be just an algorithm, like Google’s citation-ranking equation. But Smith is betting that there will still be a market, somehow, for what he does. Narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this.

They know that the story is the original killer app.

When Smith won his third National Magazine Award, Slate celebrated with an article on the man and his craft. An extended clip:

As for complexity: It is always easier, and generally more profitable, to sketch the world in blacks and whites rather than grays. As much as this calculus reigns on newspapers’ Op-Ed pages and in thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews, it is an iron law in sports sections. From reading them, you’d think that every athlete, coach, or executive is either a saint or a blackguard.

That’s not Smith’s way. The only profile of him I have been able to locate appeared in a

Gary Smith

Gary Smith, courtesy ‘Talk on Tap’

magazine called PhillySport in 1989. (Smith made his name as a young sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News.) In it he explained his approach to the writer, Bruce E. Beans: “I’m looking at it not so much as ‘this is good, this is bad,’ as much as ‘this is just life’ and trying to understand it.”

That’s of a piece with the totally self-effacing way Smith writes. Today, most journalism that anybody pays attention to gives pride of place to the writer: his or her attitude, opinions, and/or experiences. Smith, by contrast, subjugates himself to his subjects, winning their trust and spending hour after hour with them, until he has the understanding and facts needed to write long, richly psychological pieces in which the word “I” never appears.

The O’Leary article, “Lying in Wait,” is a typical production. (Along with most of Smith’s work, it can be read as part of a seven-day free trial at elibrary.com.) First of all, it’s more than 8,600 words long, a positively anachronistic bulk in today’s streamlined, dumbed-down magazine cosmos. (Smith is now an anomaly even at SI, a magazine with a noble lineage of long-form journalism. Flip the page after reading one of his engrossing sagas—it’s like you’ve wandered into People.) But room to ruminate is necessary, assuming you’re trying to do justice to the tragic story of a human being’s fall from grace. Second, the article starts from an assumption of moral ambiguity. It’s a given that O’Leary did something very wrong, but for Smith, exploring the roots of that action is much more interesting than condemning it or excusing it.

Finally, it reads like a rich short story: not a minimalist piece a là Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, but a pull-out-all-the stops production, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez. (In the light of recent scandals, it seems important to say that Smith has never been accused of fabrication or other journalistic sins.)

Journalism that goes inside people’s heads is a tricky proposition. In the heyday of the New Journalism, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote wrote from the points of view of Joe DiMaggio, stock car driver Junior Johnson, and murderer Perry Smith, respectively, with the assurance of Virginia Woolf describing London streets through the eyes of Clarissa Dalloway. But pulling that off requires prodigious reportorial stamina, capacious insight, and darned good literary chops. It’s much easier to take your subject’s description of what he or she was thinking and just drop it in the piece, surrounded by quotation marks. In a Smith piece, you rarely see a quote until the backstretch, when he’s got his narrative hooks into you and can afford to plunk in some background info via direct testimony.

It’s a great act, if you can pull it off — but can you? Smith spends the best part of three months working on a single story — a luxury that is increasingly rare in today’s world, where journalists are lucky if they get three hours. In his piece, Achenbach underlines the conundrum:

The sages say that we’ve reached a situation where “content creation” no longer pays. Only “aggregation” is profitable. It’s a freak variant of Darwinism — the survival of the parasitic. But obviously there will be little of value to aggregate if only rich people and dilettantes can afford to type up their thoughts.

Even the TV industry faces a serious story deficit. Those prime-time police and hospital dramas cost a lot of money to make. Not so expensive, however, is Jay Leno walking out and doing a monologue. That’s one reason he’s moved to 10 p.m., five nights a week. (The most compelling stories on TV are now those crafted by reality-show producers who stitch together a narrative of who’s backstabbing whom in pursuit of a prize. It’s all in the editing.)

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

Very expensive — but someone needs to have the vision to foot this bill, if narrative journalism of the highest class is not to die out altogether. Somewhere in the rush of ‘deadlines’ and ‘instant news’, we seem to have forgotten the journalist’s real job description — the best definition of which I once found in the preface to the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics [at a Poynter seminar on journalism in 2003, Pulitzer winner Tom French recommended this to me as one of the best how-to books on journalism I’d ever find — and it turned out he was right]:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

Update (May 6, 2014):

This is how SL Price, no slouch in the sportswriting business, greeted the news of Smith’s retirement:

It’s no exaggeration to say that every sportswriter of a certain ambition and age — let’s say from 20 to 70 — has had a Gary Smith moment. This is not fun. What starts as excitement soon becomes a swirl of puzzlement, awe and surprise; the frantic fluttering of pages forward and back; the parsing of sentences like so much Kremlinalia; some involuntary, half-baked blurts like, “How did he…?” and “Why did no one else…?” — and all of it leads back to you, you sorry bastard, and how you’re never, ever going to write a story like that, so what were you thinking getting into this business in the first place?

Yeah, exactly. Journalists — including but not confined to those who scribble on sport — go through that cycle, that starts with wanting to be Gary Smith, to knowing you can inhabit the same planet as him and, from that point of self-awareness, contenting ourselves with reading each successive story of his with slack-jawed admiration.

Price, in his post quoted from above, links to many of Price’s greatest hits; the one you find referenced most often is Lying In Wait, Smith’s 2002 profile of American football coach George O’Leary.

Why is this piece so good? James Ross Gardner, whose byline has starred in Esquire and GQ among others, and who works for the Seattle Met magazine, attempted to answer this question on behalf of Neiman Storyboard — and inter alia, points at the secret sauce that makes Smith primus inter pares among non-fiction writers:

We may as well begin the way Gary Smith begins – with a question, and near the end. Why is it that when you finish reading “Lying in Wait,” Smith’s 2002 profile of coach George O’Leary, you feel the impact so strongly? And by feel I mean physically feel. It will be different for everyone, but it hits me somewhere in the throat.

I do know that sensation is why, when asked about my favorite nonfiction writers, I rarely mention Gary Smith. I suspect I’m not alone. Listing Gary Smith comes with the obligation of explaining why Gary Smith. And anyone who’s been affected by his stories in Sports Illustrated – about coaches flattened by cancer, say, or an integrated high school team during segregation – knows that the pieces are hard to describe, that by the time you reach the end you’re emotionally drained but unable to articulate why. So I’ll talk about Tom Wolfe’s explosive sentences or David Grann’s knack for plot twists or John Hersey’s masterful pacing. But I’ll hardly ever refer to the guy at the top of my list, and that, I suppose, is a lie of omission.

Yeah. We often omit Smith’s name when listing our favorite writers, because it is beyond our ability to articulate just what it is about his writing that is par excellence. So we are content to toss in a few links to a subjective selection of his best work, season those links with a few superlatives, and leave it at that. This is what Ben Yagoda did in 2003, when Smith won the National Magazine Award for non-fiction. (Correction: …when Smith won one of his many NMA awards, I should have said: He has won it four times, which is a record; he was finalist a further 10 times, which is another record.) Here is Yagoda (Emphasis mine):

Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he’s the best magazine writer in America. The only injustice is that, outside the small world of editors who vote for the National Magazine Awards and the even smaller subset ofSports Illustrated readers who pay attention to bylines, he is a nobody.

Part of Smith’s obscurity is explained by his subject matter, which some view as having negligible importance. Yet such sports scribes as John Feinstein and Smith’s SIcolleagues Frank Deford and Rick Reilly have spectacularly higher profiles. (Reilly’s new monograph Who’s Your Caddy? was No. 3 last week on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; Smith’s only book, a collection of articles called Beyond the Game, ranks 280,343 on Amazon’s list.) No, the real reason lies in his attributes as a writer, all of which go counter to powerful prevailing trends in journalistic writing: He favors obscurity over fame, complexity over simplicity, and humility over literary showmanship.

The New York Times headlined a 2008 piece on him The Sports Whisperer; Jon Friedman called him, simply, America’s Best Magazine Writer (and that is fair enough — after all, that simple declarative headline says all that needs saying).

Here is Gary Smith himself, on empathy and getting inside the skin of his subjects — and this should be mandatory reading for every person aspiring to be a journalist:

To become a longform writer and to kind of immerse yourself in different worlds, it’s almost like a double-railed track. Not only do you grow as a writer, but that other rail of the track is huge. Part of it is something you’re developing – some sense of self, getting a little more at ease in your own flesh and bones. So much of what happens in the interactions between you as the writer and the subject hinges on their trust in you, their confidence in you. And so much of that hinges on how comfortable you are. Any uneasiness you bring is going to cost you dearly.

….

As you’re walking as an outsider into these worlds all the time, how comfortable are you in doing that? If they feel your uneasiness, how easy are they going to feel about handing you their most intimate stuff to write about?

There’s almost an equivalence to that interaction, so the more they sense that you’re really there just to understand rather than judge is huge in how much they’re going to start giving … When you’re more relaxed, you listen, and you’re ready to flow with what’s being said and to hear something that’s sparking off three or four other questions in your mind. It’s because your mind is more relaxed; it’s not tense and tight and worried about getting that next question on your checklist.

Smith was once asked what he wanted his stories to do. This is what he said:

To make readers think about life and about themselves and why human beings do what they do.

PS: All these laudatory pieces I linked to above? Their real worth is in the embedded links to some of Gary Smith’s greatest work — discover, and enjoy. And while on that, editors and writers pick their favorites from the Smith oeuvre — and the result is writing gold.

 

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Eye Browse: The Spy Edition

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McLeod — Mata Hari, to give her the name she is best known by — was born this day in 1876.

In his book Children of the Days, under the entry for this date, Eduardo Galeano says this about the celebrated Dutch spy who lends her name to her tribe:

Sumptuous beds were her battlefields in the First World War. Top military and political leaders succumbed to her charms, and they confided secrets she then sold to France or Germany or whoever would pay more.

In 1917 a French military court sentenced her to death.

The most beloved spy in the world blew kisses to the firing squad.

Eight of the twelve soldiers missed.

To add to that, here is archival gold: an eyewitness account of the execution. And here is a profile of the iconic lady spy.

In passing, do you know of any writer who does micro-portraiture as well as Galeano? (Here’s an earlier post that has much on him, and on my pick of the best soccer book of all time).

In honor of the celebrated spy who would have been 137 years old today if the other four soldiers had also missed, four stories from the archives about espionage:

The Stasi and the Swann: David Grann brilliance on the last spy of the Cold War era

The Un-Crackable Code: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee on the man who would be a spy, and the code he created that puzzled the best

Double Blind: Mathew Teague on how British intelligence infiltrated the IRA

How Anna Chapman became the face of Kremlin Capitalism: And why it is important for spies to be sexy

It’s [still] about voices

A little over a month ago, in a post introducing Yahoo! Opinions, I’d written about the need for Yahoo to find its voice. And in the immediate aftermath, the newly launched initiative found some favorable coverage — like, so.

Both before the launch of our Opinions section under Amit Varma’s aegis, and in the subsequent weeks, I’ve been fielding questions from journalist and lay friends on the ‘So what?’ and ‘What next?’ lines.

The ‘So what?’ group argued on these lines: Dude, it is not as if you and Amit Varma invented columns — every damn newspaper/website worth its audience has columns, often far more ‘renowned’ names. So what’s the big deal about what you are doing here?

True. We didn’t invent the concept of opinions — they’ve been around almost as long as print journalism. And Yahoo! Opinions is not, in and of itself, a ‘big deal’ [though I must add that the early traffic numbers are well above what I had projected prior to launch]. Park that thought for a moment.

The other group wanted to know what was next.

This — the official Yahoo editorial blog.

We switched on the lights, with no fuss and fanfare, at noon yesterday. My colleague Suma Nagraj, who is point person for the initiative and who has been following the numbers obsessively since launch, is over the moon: 98,890 page views at midnight — that is, 12 hours post launch; 146,541 page views in toto as I write this, 24 hours after launch. That is, a few thousand more page views in a day than I get on this blog in a good month.

And no — we didn’t invent blogging either.

What we are attempting to do, with Opinions first and now the blog, is two-fold. The first, clearly, is to experiment with, and find, an editorial voice — an absolute essential for a site that is otherwise known as a content aggregator. Ergo, the blog: It allows my colleagues in Yahoo, who thus far have been voiceless entities spending their days and nights curating content that comes from a multiplicity of sources, to spread their wings; to write and, through writing, to move beyond their daily brief and explore their own limits. [The blog, incidentally, might appear a bit diffuse, lacking in a clear focus, just now — but that is exactly how we want it. The idea has to be for everyone, across editorial functions, to start writing; fine-tuning of the content et cetera will happen organically over time].

That’s a first step. Starting next week, we’ll gradually introduce a series of regular features on the blog, that will cumulatively help shape content and define the platform. And once their voices gain in assurance, the logical next step is to move into the realm of ‘original content’; to get a team that thus far has been desk-bound to step outside office, to find and tell compelling stories.

The second reason is a touch more complicated. A priority, when I joined Yahoo in January this year, was for us as an organization to decide on a long term strategy for the site. That exercise, which cuts across departments and hierarchies, took us the best part of four months — but we now know where we want to be a year, two years from now. And each of these initiatives — Opinions, now the blog — are calculated steps towards that destination. The coming months will see more micro-launches; hopefully, if we’ve done our thinking right, by the end of the year you’ll see exactly where we are going with all of this.

Meantime, do me a favor: check out the blog, and if you have feedback on the lines of what you would like to see and such, let me know. Here.

PS: Anticipating a question: Yes, I’ll be posting on that blog. Actually, during the seeding process I’d already put up three posts: on rock as escape in Nagaland; on Rahul Mehta’s debut with a collection of gay-themed short-stories; and on the 50th anniversary of Psycho besides a promo post to two columns on Yahoo that examine the arguments for and against homeopathy.

I’ve been kind of swamped, and haven’t had the time to figure out what I’ll post there and what kind of content I’ll save for this blog. Hopefully, next week will bring more clarity. In the meantime, will be off the air from now through the weekend — got a heck of a lot of pencil-and-paper planning to do. Regular service, on cricket and all else, resumes Monday [in any case, what the heck can you say about India’s ‘hopefuls’ in Zimbabwe that cannot be summed up in the one word, ‘hopeless’?]

Eye browse

A random collection of essential reading matter:

#1. I used to think Groucho Marx’s letter to Warner Brothers was the gold standard for laugh out loud letter writing — till I chanced on David Thorne’s efforts. This weekend, I had occasion to add another name to the list — Aadisht Khanna, who was kind enough to cc me on a series of responses to people who had written in to him about his last column, on fighting the Love Jihad. Checked my email at what was not perhaps the best time to laugh out loud, and as a result got, from family members, some harsh words for inappropriate laughter. I’m hoping Aadisht will, one of these days, create a column or blog post around those who mail him, and his responses. In the meantime, here’s his latest: a treatise on how Lalit Modi, Amitabh Bachchan, Deepak Chopra and others can help save the Indian tiger. If laughter is the best medicine, AK is rapidly becoming my go-to physician.

#2. Another favorite columnist, Girish Sahane [the fact that many of my favorite writers are now doing columns for Yahoo is not exactly a coincidence], is insightful on the recent equation of homeopathy with witchcraft, which prompted several people and entities in India to go off like so many misguided missiles.

#3. Following on from the earlier post on Vinay Kumar and the BCCI’s chronic inability to manage its product better, here’s Gideon Haigh, with a good read on the subject.

The dearth is not simply of up-to-date information but of meaningful analysis, and not merely of how money is being raised but how it is being allocated. Indian observers are transfixed by the aforementioned $4.13 billion valuation ascribed to IPL by Brand Finance, a figure almost entirely meaningless: because the IPL is not for sale, the value is unrealisable. They remain perversely incurious about how the BCCI spends its vast resources. During their dispute with the Indian board in January, India’s taxation authorities came up with a figure of mysterious provenance but extraordinary implications: on the actual promotion of Indian cricket, the BCCI spends just 8% of revenues. Never mind Lalit Modi – why is this not a scandal?

#4. Chris Gayle sends Suleiman Benn off to the doghouse. The reason why, is brilliant — and an object lesson for other captains:

“I actually asked him to leave the field,’ Gayle told reporters after the game. “As a captain, it was a situation like you ask a particular bowler to do it and he said he never done certain things before. That why you have practice sessions, to practice. I asked him to simply bowl over the wicket. I don’t see why it should be a problem.

“He wasn’t up for it and if you’re not up for it, why give that particular bowler the ball. I just see it that he [Benn] doesn’t want to take part. It was my call to actually ask him to leave and tell him that he is not needed anymore.”

#5. Curioser and curioser: India apparently arm-twisted Sri Lanka into opposing the nomination of John Howard as the next ICC president. Speculating on the basis of a speculative story is bad policy, but still: how did this go? India opposed; India got those over whom it has some influence to oppose [where would Sri Lankan cricket be without these once a week ‘tournaments’ with India?]; India then had a meeting with Howard; India withdrew its opposition? Now I am even more curious to know what the quid pro quo was.

#6. And while on Howard, a good post by ‘achettup’ that basically poses the question: what the fuck does it matter anyway?

It isn’t as some believe, that he truly is the best man for the job. And it isn’t that he will be Test Cricket’s savior, the readiness of the board to jump into bed with the BCCI over the Champions League should tell you all you need to know about that. Nor is it that he will give a strong voice to Australia’s (once again, NZ’s concerns can be, urm…, well reviewed a little later) interests and counteract the increasingly powerful Asian bloc – I doubt anybody can make a significant impact on that, though there is no doubt that this is one of the reasons Howard has been selected. The real reason is that this is Cricket Australia’s rather lame effort to assert themselves on the international scene by taking a bold and provocative stand. It will win them no friends, renew enmity once dead with certain boards and eventually all they would have engineered is a nice fall flat on their face.

As mentioned before, I don’t honestly see what danger Howard would bring to the most dysfunctional of sporting bodies, the ICC, or for that matter how much his predecessor Sharad Pawar could either. If it were up to me, politicians would be kept a few astronomical units away from cricket administration, but all that said, when was the last time an ICC CEO made any real impact on the sport, positive or negative? And since when has the ICC not been torn by some rift or the other and the formation of these retarded blocs opposing each other for a variety of political reasons. And to be honest I’m sick of hearing about these bungling has-beens and their desperate efforts to grab the limelight. If the game was meant to be about the administrators there would have been deliberate efforts to make their actions more entertaining. Like in the IPL.

More reading matter, as and when I stumble on them. Found any interesting links? Cricket, or anything else at all? Please to share.

Making babies, going to the movies

Because every country is good at something. [Relevant data here]

Addendum: Team of Rivals

Further to the earlier post on Anand and his “human cluster”, this: in the interview, Vishy acknowledges the work put in by Anish Giri, the Dutch chess prodigy who in January 2009 became the youngest ever grandmaster. For the chess fans among you — and it’s a pleasant surprise to see how many there are — one of Giri’s hobbies is annotating great chess games. And here, with his commentary, is game 12 of the FIDE face off between Anand and Topalov. Here’s Giri on game 2, when Anand played a beauty to level the scores. [Bonus — a database of 150 of Giri’s tournament games to date].

Saluting the champ

Amit Varma on Vishy Anand, and all that he means to chess, to India. Must read.