Wide Open

Before he steps out into the public glare, Sachin Tendulkar puts himself through a ritual: First, he plugs in his earphones and turns the volume of his IPod way up; he then hides his eyes and half his face under his preferred brand of shades.

The earphones and shades are the bars to a prison Tendulkar voluntarily immures himself in, not out of arrogance but of the desire of an intensely private, extremely shy person to keep the world at bay.

It is, equally, the attempt to find through artificial means the privacy denied, for two decades and counting, to one who ‘belongs’ to the nation.

The prison motif also permeates much of Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open — but in his case it is a prison constructed by circumstance, not out of choice.

Open is a searingly honest book [earliest posts here, and here]; a brilliant coming of age narrative that also serves as the prism through which we witness the entries and exits, on the world stage, of some of the most storied players of the age.

It helps that the narrative arc of Agassi’s life is almost operatic: tormented childhood, troubled teens, conflicted adulthood all marked by an internecine conflict between talent and temperament/inclination; an almost Dickensian plumbing of the depths of degradation followed by a Chicken Soup for the Sporting Soul story of redemption.

Three women power the story: the teeny-bopper crush turned live-in lover of his early twenties; the Princeton-educated supermodel/actress he happily beds and reluctantly weds, and whom he treats in his memory with an indifference bordering on contempt; and the leggy blonde tennis legend who becomes his personal Holy Grail and who, once she enters his life, propels the narrative towards a fairy-tale denouement.

Supporting the lead actors is an ensemble cast of supporting characters who in their respective ways serve as catalyst to the tale: the tyrannous father [‘bad things happen’ when his father is angry, Agassi says in the voice of the scared child, early in the book] and soft-spoken, all-accepting mother who, in the denouement, stands revealed as The Image is Everything phasepossessing unsuspected strengths; the older, less talented brother who becomes his pro bono driver and wing man; the physical trainer who is the closest thing mankind has seen to the Incredible Hulk; the Fagin-like director of the tennis academy that becomes Agassi’s teenage prison [he refers to his training there as the tennis equivalent of breaking rocks as part of a prison chain gang]; the pastor who on cue doles out dollops of Deepak Chopra-esque bromides; the best friend of his childhood who becomes his manager; and the two coaches, themselves former players of some repute, who chisel his court craft and convert him from street-fighter to a strategist of the tennis court.

And the players: a constant, dazzling parade on the other side of the net of some of the greatest names of the age. What we often tend to lose sight of is that in a career that spans 1986-2006, Agassi has storied players fade and fresh talent emerge. He has battled McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Connors and Becker [the latter two he treats with undisguised contempt]; he has seen the likes of Courier and Wilander emerge, soar and ebb; he With friend and rival Pete Samprashas seen the metamorphosis of Pete Sampras from a ‘no talent’ tyro to his arch-nemesis [“I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration,” Agassi says in one of the many cathartic moments in the book]; he has played against and outlasted the greatest names of two decades and, in his twilight years, seen the emergence of Roger Federer, the player who he names, against the backdrop of their first meeting, as the one destined to be the greatest ever.

Those names, and Agassi’s photographic memory for match detail, drive large sections of the book and provide unmatched insight into what goes on in the mind of a player as he battles back from the edge.

But it is his personal journey – from traumatized boy to troubled teen; from precocious talent to chronic under-achiever; from the ‘Image is Everything’ parody to the dignified champion who, in his last hurrah at the 2006 US Open, made fans weep the bitter tears of personal loss – that gives the book its cutting edge. And Agassi’s greatest triumph is perhaps this – he handpicked the perfect collaborator.

JR Moehringer, who is thanked extensively in the afterword, had during his stint at the LA Times netted a feature-writing Pulitzer for his portrait of a river-front town that is home to the descendants of slaves, whose isolation is threatened by a proposed ferry that will link them to the mainland.

He almost netted another Pulitzer [Moehringer was a named finalist] for his searing profile of heavyweight boxer Bob Satterfield, every key stroke of which is, in the light of hindsight, a precursor to what he would do with the many dozens of hours of conversations he had with Agassi.

In an extended section of the afterword, Agassi talks of how he had identified Moehringer as the writer he wanted to work with after reading his memoir, The Tender Bar. Read these excerpts – from the author’s website and from Amazon – and the reason for the choice of

With Brooke Shields: I do? Like heck I do!

Moehringer becomes clear. The themes in his memoir — parental neglect or/and abuse; a desperate quest for identity that paradoxically triggers self-destructive behavior; the constant search for a father figure, mother, companion, seer and, always shimmering in the distance, the promise of redemption – foreshadow the themes that permeate Open.

What strikes you most forcefully as you read Open is its breathless urgency; a sense of watching events unfold in the living, breathing present, that gives an added urgency to the matches Agassi lives through, to the sense of impending cataclysm that hangs over his relationship with Brooke Shields  and to the developing destiny that drives the Agassi-Graf relationship. Moehringer achieves this by writing always in the historic present and, by putting you in the midst of the action as it is taking place, getting you to invest emotionally in the story.

You feel in a physical way the ball come off the racket as he hits the screaming forehand pass that knocks Boris Becker out at the end of a match in which Becker got Agassi’s goat by bowling kisses at his then girlfriend Brooke Shields; you feel the lung-busting, soul-searing effort that went into the quarterfinal of the 2005 US Open [one of the meticulously detailed games in the book], where Agassi

The Holy Grail: Agassi and Graf with son Jaden and daughter Jaz

came back from two sets to love to win his match against James Blake in a 5th set tie-breaker; you feel Agassi’s disappointment when he wins finally Wimbledon only to learn that Steffi Graf, the women’s champion, won’t be dancing with him after all; and as he sits in a plane, crafting a crude birthday card for Graf out of an airline menu, you root for romance to triumph.

And it is all down to Moehringer’s brilliance as amanuensis.

Moehringer constructs the story with rare skill; his tools are a pitch-perfect ear for dialog and a deft touch with portraiture, so that every character, central or peripheral, appears on the page vitally alive and fully formed.

‘Voice’ is the hardest thing for the ghost-writer to crack. Write in the voice of the protagonist — who, though skilled in his area of endeavor is likely untutored in the art of telling a story — and the narrative could end up bloodless, lifeless; write someone else’s story in your own voice, and the result rings false in the reader’s ear.

In 2006, Gary Smith [subject of an earlier post] wrote a profile of Agassi for Sports Illustrated that has since been extensively anthologized in ‘Best of…’ collections. It reads, in retrospect, like a Condensed Books version of Open — and the similarities suffice to tell you that the voice we hear, in Smith’s profile and in the autobiography, is Agassi’s own. What Moehringer brings is the skill of the top-notch practitioner of narrative non-fiction: pacing, sentence structure and a driving ‘beat’ to the words that, like a good bass line, you feel in the gut.

Sometimes, though, it all feels too pat. The villains get their comeuppance; no matter how rocky things get in the life of his friends it all comes right in the end, thanks often to the hero’s large-hearted generosity; the hero himself beats all odds, becomes world number one; woos, wins and weds the unattainable maiden…

Pat. Perfect, in a way life rarely is. And it makes you think.

We, all of us, lead two lives. The one is a messy, chaotic affair lived in the hurly-burly  present. And the other is the revisionist version that we live relive in our personal rear-view mirror. In this version there are no coincidences; everything that happens ties in neatly with everything else that happened or will happen; actions are dictated  not by knee-jerk reactions to the randomly unfolding present but by carefully calibrated reasoning; unsightly loose ends are neatly tied during this process of post hoc revision and the more obdurate ones are snipped away altogether.

Open is clearly revisionist; its silences speak to the unsightly bits that have been cauterized. And nowhere is that silence as eloquent as when Agassi speaks of his drug-taking. We know when it started and how; we have a sense of his short term gains and long-term losses; we live through him the euphoria of the high and the soul-destroying nature of the aftermath. But — and thanks to my personal experience with drugs, it is something I looked forward to reading, and was disappointed not to find — when did the self-destructive nature of what he was doing really dawn on him? How? Why? And how, after clocking up a year or more on a killer like crystal meth, did he kick the habit?

The book is silent on that, just as it is largely silent on his role in the two failed relationships that preceded his link up with Steffi Graf.

That minor quibble aside, few if any sports memoirs manage to rise beyond self-serving hagiography and into the realm of soul-searching bildungsroman. Open makes that leap effortlessly, and wins my vote for best sports book of the year/the decade, and – since tennis is the theme – finds place in a very select list that includes the seminal Rivals by Johnette Howard, the story of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry [review by Soumya Bhattacharya] and You Cannot Be Serious, the autobiography of my all time favorite tennis player, John Patrick McEnroe.


Agassi’s riffs on the players of his generation provide rare insights. Here, for the Indian in us, are his thoughts on two players. First, Ramesh Krishnan, who handed Agassi his first defeat after the latter turned pro at age 16:

My first tournament as a pro is in Schenectady, New York. I reach the final of the $100,000 tournament, then lose to Ramesh Krishnan 6-2, 6-3. I don’t feel bad, however. Krishnan is great, better than his ranking of 40-something, and I am an unknown teenager playing in the final of a fairly important tournament. It’s that ultimate rarity — a painless loss. I feel nothing but pride. In fact, I feel a trace of hope, because I know I could have played better, and I know Krishnan knows.

Next, Leander Paes, whom Agassi encounters at the Atlanta Olympics:

In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs — he’s the Brad [his then coach, Brad Gilbert] of Bombay. Then, behind all this junk, he flies to the net and covers so well that it all seems to work. After an hour you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I am prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6, 6-3.

Right. Moving on:

Graf and Agassi in Louis Vuitton ad/photo Annie Liebowitz

Remember this image? From my archival collection, a link to the Louis Vuitton ad series, Journeys. Scroll down on the right nav bar to check out the eight clips in the ‘New York’ series.

Agassi talks to Katie Couric about Open: Part one, and two.

And finally — one of the most moving personal introductions I’ve ever heard: Agassi introduces Steffi Graf at her induction, in 2004, into the Hall of Fame [transcript here, if you need one]:


Open, and bleeding

Agassi crying

Image courtesy The Telegraph

I’m yet to get hold of a copy of Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography – but last night, I read the extended extract published in Sports Illustrated.

At one point I stopped reading, unable to resist the memories that bubbled up unbidden from the subterranean wellsprings of the soul. This is the graf where I stopped reading:

Such moments come to mind whenever I think about telling my father that I don’t want to play tennis. Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don’t want to upset him. I don’t dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset. If he says I’m going to play tennis, if he says I’m going to be No. 1 in the world, that it’s my destiny, all I can do is nod and obey.

It is now 12 years and counting since my own father died in 1997 – and yet I remain conflicted about so much of the love-hate relationship we shared. Okay, ‘hate’ is the wrong word. For a period of 11 years, from the day I delivered the coup de grace to parental ambition by dropping out of college to the day I left my home in Chennai and arrived in Mumbai to take up a job as a journalist, we were two people forced by circumstance to share a finite space while speaking totally different languages that rendered us each incomprehensible to the other.

Dad was — and I cannot emphasize this enough — not even remotely close to Mike Agassi in temperament. But there were parallels – in his case, the dragon was the vision he had of my future, a vision that constantly blasted ambition at me like so many tennis balls I was expected to hit over the net: research scientist; doctor; army surgeon; IFS officer…

Dreams he had for himself. Dreams he sought to live vicariously through me. Dreams I never shared.

In retrospect, there are many things I could have done better; many ways I could have reconciled the dreams he dreamt for me with my own vision of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. But that’s the thing about going through hell – that journey comes without a GPS, a roadmap. It is not about days lived so much as it is about minutes endured – a succession of impossible minutes that, like Chinese water torture, drip away at your mind, your strength, till without warning you snap, you break in vital ways beyond possibility of repair.

In that time I’ve done alcohol and drugs or more accurately, alcohol and drugs have done me; in that time I’ve left my home thrice, each time with nothing in my pocket and no idea where I was going or how I would survive; in that time I’ve more than once contemplated ending my life because to continue it seemed more effort than it was worth.

I’ve never been able to speak of the specifics of that period to anyone; even my wife, who knows pretty much all there is to know about me, only has a broad picture but no idea of the real colors of despair. When dad died, I wrote this – my valediction, my attempt to paint the complexity of our relationship in the colors of love, and of grief.

I found then that it was easy to write of the good – but when I got to the point where I had to write of the underside of our relationship, I chickened out. In that piece, I also spoke of why, of how difficult candor is, when it potentially cuts close to the bone:

It is a very difficult thing to do, that: to lower your defenses, express yourself not just from the head but also the heart.

Because, each time you do that, you reveal a bit more about yourself. And the more you reveal, the more vulnerable you make yourself, the more you expose yourself to hurt, to ridicule.

It strikes me that this is yet another reason to admire Andre Agassi – what I’ve read thus far is an example of the sort of searing honesty that is so rare in the self-serving hagiographies that take up so much space on the shelves.

Read, again, the passages headlined 1977 and ask yourselves this: Could you have gone through that experience and not been broken by it? Could you have survived, let alone triumphed? And then, when there really is no need for you to do it – could you have viewed your past life with such blinding clarity and painful honesty?

Those who suggest that Agassi wrote as he did so he could sell a few more books miss a point: he didn’t need to. He – and wife Steffi – are rich. In their case, ‘rich’ is an absolute, beyond need of qualifiers; beyond need, also, of the chump change to be made by selling a few copies of a book.

Incidentally, proponents of the theory that ‘honesty’ is a sales gimmick also need to consider that by writing as he did, Agassi has effectively ruled himself out of future endorsements, sponsored appearances, and other avenues that even the stars of a previous generation continue to exploit.

Rohit Brijnath, one of my favorite sportswriters and a long-time friend, was discussing this with me in email; apropos, he sent me the text of his latest column – one that resonates with my own reaction to the Agassi controversy. It appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore; since there is no online link, I’ll reproduce it here in its entirety, with Rohit’s consent:

The Sporting Life

Andre Agassi is an attention-craving, poor me-crying, book-hyping, drug-cheating millionaire.


What's he complaining about?: An Annie Leibowitz image

Guy marries Steffi, can buy a Las Vegas casino and still have money to lose in it, and his life is hard? In his autobiography, he writes that he took crystal meth, he hated tennis, his back hurt. Boo hoo.

This is one view of Agassi. I don’t subscribe to it. It is too convenient. It’s too cynical, as if we’re programmed to be suspicious of any honesty as a way to sell books, especially in the Oprah-fied American landscape. It’s too simplistic in its view that if you’re rich, and successful, what’s there to cry about?

Agassi’s soul baring isn’t a clever ploy. His tale is simply alarming, an athlete’s grim walk through the disturbed terrain of his youth. The extracts available so far are compelling. Like Lance Armstrong found the perfect teller of his tales in the writer Sally Jenkins, Agassi’s collaboration with JR Moehringer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing in 2000, has paid off.

The writing is taut; the stories full of the darkness of sport that we don’t see every day, or choose not to. We see the champion, but Agassi is telling us, we don’t always know his story. So he has peeled off the skin of his public persona and shown us a rawer version of himself.

A page of this book is worth entire tomes that sleep on bookshop shelves, inane diaries of athletic lives and autobiographies so dull they can induce a coma. Just for that we should thank Agassi.

His book is a mea culpa, yes, an admission of guilt about recreational drug-taking in 1997 and lies to the tennis authorities. His game then was disintegrating — at one point he played eight events and won a single match. Was the drug an indulgence, an escape? Make your choice, but his honesty deserves respect. We cannot understand sport unless its heroes reveal its insides to us.

The drugs have become the book’s primary controversy, but it is the young Agassi’s labour on court, how he was made, that appals. He is a boy shouted at and berated and pushed into greatness by a father who perhaps saw him not as a kid but a business plan. His book is revealing; it is also a warning.

Turn on the television set and you see the oversized cheque, the grinning winner, the manicured field, the excited fan, the blonde wife. It seems the perfect life. But the sporting world, and we need reminding of this, is not merely about fantasy and fairy tale.

It is a grimmer universe.

Some sports have a culture of abuse towards women. A study early in this decade apparently revealed that English cricketers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male. Steroid use to gain advantage is still pushed hard, even at high-school level. American football is having to take a closer look at the links between the game and later dementia.

Sport is not absent of madness and Agassi’s early life is proof. Not that his is the first story involving a pushy parent. Tennis player Mary Pierce’s father shouted “Kill the bitch, Mary” about an opponent. Golfer Anthony Kim’s father would pretend to trash trophies if he won with an over-par score. Golfer Sean O’Hair’s dad made him run a mile for every stroke he finished over par. Once he reportedly said: “When he was too old to spank, Sean was sometime lightly slapped across the face… A few times the light slap would catch the nose and it would bleed. There was never any abuse.”

The stories are endless, but with Agassi we’re surprised, perhaps because he did not look haunted, merely silly, in those denim shorts. It seems he had only disguised his pain. As a boy, he hit 2,500 balls a day, not for himself but for his father, and he couldn’t argue, couldn’t say no, couldn’t say enough.

His father pointed a gun at a stranger in traffic, he carried salt and pepper in his pockets in case he ever needed them in a fight. Of course Agassi couldn’t say no, as he writes: “Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don’t want to upset him. I don’t dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset.”

Agassi’s book is a journey through an imperfect life, and a strange livelihood, and let’s be grateful. There is enough inspiration out there about sport – sometimes, the darker side needs an airing. Because this is him, Agassi, the great player, we pay more attention and we remember, again, that sport should never be like this.

Sport should be about fathers who challenge their kids, not those who hand them amphetamines before matches. It should be a life born of fun, not fear.

I don’t mean to suggest that post facto honesty absolves Agassi of a ‘crime’ we would have known nothing about had he not chosen to speak to the record. He confessed, and now he can take whatever knocks come to him, and welcome.

I do, however, intend to point out that in our obsession with the ‘scandalous’ coda to the story of a life lived on the edge [from which we single out for notice not the important bits, but such inanities], we are perhaps in danger of overlooking the intrinsic worth of this book. And that, as Rohit points out, would be a tragedy, because such openness is rare enough to be treasured.

Agassi’s mea culpa

Brad Gilbert, Andre Agassi’s long time tennis coach, takes a no-harm, no-foul attitude to the crystal meth revelations, but Harsha Bhogle is not quite as forgiving. The core of Harsha’s argument is contained in this clip:

At the best of times it’s a flawed equation, this assumption that a fine sportsman is a fine person, but it exists and I fear Agassi may have given people reason to indulge in drugs.

Precisely the problem I find with the fuss being made of Agassi’s revelations. We know him, and followed him, for his brilliance as a tennis player — whence the need to elevate him into a template for us to live our lives by? Put differently — isn’t it enough that a sportsperson entertains us in his or her chosen domain of activity, which is what they get paid to do? Is it also necessary for them to be worthy of canonisation?

If Agassi had taken performance-enhancing drugs, it would have been quite another matter: that is cheating pure and simple, and goes against the grain of what we expect from sport. By no stretch of the imagination, though, can crystal meth be called a performance-enhancer — the opposite is true, if anything.

So the worst you can say about this situation is that the man did recreational drugs. Is that something I would want my child to emulate? No — but then, I wouldn’t want my child to emulate my experiments with drugs either [quite a while ago, so those raised eyebrows of yours can come right back down; outside of an occasional joint, I don’t indulge now].

In any case, what are the tennis authorities supposed to do now, publicly defrock Agassi, strip him of his many titles? The question of his legacy is in any case not grist for the official mill — a player’s legacy is in the minds and hearts of the followers of his sport; some will likely gasp in indignation that they were suckered into emotionally investing in a druggie, while others will remember those moments of incandescent brilliance he brought to the game, and forget the rest.

In course of random browsing just now, I refreshed my memory of just what the man brought to his sport. Way back in the late 1980s, US tennis was looking for a savior — and found a temperamental, tempestuous talent [here, dating back to that time, is an early appreciation on Sports Illustrated]. What struck me about this piece is the glimpse of what such enormous national expectations can do to you:

So desperate are tennis fans in the United States for a new crown prince that not even juniors are spared the scrutiny. When Michael Chang won his first match in a main draw at the United States Open last August, the question was heard again. ”Is this the one?”

Aaron Krickstein knows about expectations. He was a phenom at 17, ranked No. 7 in the world. Surely, this was the one. By the time he was 20, he was considered washed up, dropping to No. 61 last year. Krickstein has only recently begun to show he may survive, after all.

Later in the same year, the media was already proclaiming the end of its search and the anointing of the new crown prince of American tennis [in passing, check out this article on what it takes — and takes out of you — to be a teen star]. From there to here has been a memorable ride — and despite that hit of crystal meth, I find my own memories of the man remain largely untarnished [incidentally, IMHO Harsha is a bit off base when he compares the Agassi episode with the Roman Polanski affair — in doing drugs, Agassi hurt no one but himself; what Polanski did was a crime on another person].

Here’s the lengthiest extract from his book that I’ve been able to find; I’ve got a print out for reading at home tonight, but even a quick glance indicates there is more to this book than a hit of crystal meth — our thirst for scandal being what it is, though, it is only that one episode that is consistently hitting the headlines.

In passing, some — including Harsha — have suggested that maybe we would all be better off if Agassi had kept some facts to himself. Again, I’d want to disagree: in interviews, in the profiles that proliferate in magazines and newspapers, and even in their books, sportsmen too often tend to dishonesty. I’d far rather read of, and learn from, a flawed human being than be treated to the whitewashed ‘memories’ of a putative ‘saint’.

Sports writing: update

Additional to my previous post — read the opening of Gay Talese’s book A Writer’s Life: a lovely example of finding great stories on the margins of sport.

In the furnace of the sporting psyche

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; more specifically, 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.



Eye Browse

1. Did you know of the Indian restaurant called Vagina Tandoori? Would you fancy a meal at the Bung Hole? [Link courtesy Mental Floss]. [In comments, Siddharth points out that it is actually a photoshopped joke]

2. Journalist/author Ron Rosenbaum [a byline that will resonate with readers of Esquire, Village Voice, Vanity Fair

The 138 index cards that contain 'Laura'

The 138 index cards that contain 'Laura'

and the magazine section of the New York Times] was largely instrumental in the upcoming publication of The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumous publication. In an article for Slate, Rosenbaum writes of the secrecy surrounding the book in the run up to publication, and on the fascinating insights Nabakov’s revisions/excisions offer into the author’s creative process.

No, the indecipherable scrawls moved me for a different reason. I’d known about them from the photos in Die Zeit, of course, but this time they struck me more deeply. They were evidence of the drama inherent in the creative process, a process whose heart is revision. I devoted a substantial portion of The Shakespeare Wars to the scholarly controversy over whether Shakespeare revised his play scripts. Ben Jonson famously said that Shakespeare never “blotted out a line,” but a substantial case has been made in recent years that he did rewrite on occasion, sometimes altering single words or phrases, sometimes making more substantial edits.

Shakespeare’s revisions (and Nabokov’s) matter for two reasons. Revision indicated that even these writers shouldn’t be considered godlike figures from whom the muse poured forth perfection on the first try, but writers who are—in some ways—like other writers, in at least this respect: They were subject to second thoughts. And distinguishing what those second thoughts might have been and why they focused on rethinking this or that word or phrase or scene offers a window into the meaning of the work.

But—and this is the second but not secondary meaning of the blottings out—revisions also offer a window into the humanity of the author. That even the greatest of geniuses (and yes, I believe the term is valid for these two) were not superhuman; they live in the same world of error and doubt that the rest of us inhabit. The fact that they think they’ve made “mistakes” makes their work even more perfect than it would be if they never blotted a line or scratched out a word.

From the archives, a Times Online article of a year ago about the book and the burning debate on whether or not it should be destroyed per the author’s own wishes; Dmitri Nabokov on NPR [and on BBC] about why he decided to go ahead and publish;  and the original Rosenbaum piece in Slate that first made the case for the publication of the book. Also read, my friend Salil Tripathi’s superb essay in Mint on the book, and on the dilemma Nabakov placed on his son. Clip:

Burning a book is different from burning minutiae of our quotidian lives. Books are often burnt in anger, and when they are, they presage evil. On my first visit to Berlin, I walked away from the Brandenburg Gate, along the avenue of imperial grandeur, Unter den Linden. To my right, I came across an open quadrangle. There, a part of the floor was made of glass. Inside, you could see stacks of bookshelves, all white, glowing in a yellow light. The bookshelves were empty. There was a palpable stillness around that quaint monument which was eerie. It was meant to be: It was the monument to the ritual book-burning the Nazis performed once they seized power in Germany in the 1930s. They targeted troublesome authors: Jews, homosexuals, anti-fascists, or those otherwise sympathetic to communism or leftist ideas.

The link of creativity between the written word on a printed page, the thought that goes behind it, the imagination of a mind that gives it shape, is what makes us human, and it is what expression and humanity are all about. Destroy the work, and you destroy the thought behind it—and the thinker.

3. The ‘parents’ of Web2.0 have moved on — to Web Squared. [Ever since Bobilli Vijay Kumar, in his Times of India obituary, called Raj Singh Dungarpur the ‘uncrowned grandfather of Indian cricket’, I haven’t been able to mention such notional parentage without an involuntary grin].

In this sense, the Web Squared era is an era of augmented reality, arriving (like the sensor revolution) stealthily, in more pedestrian clothes than we expected. Our devices can tell us what we’re seeing (like the Wikitude travel guide application for Android which uses the camera, location data, compass and image recognition to tell you what monument you’re looking at), what we’re not seeing (like Darkslide, which shows you photos of what’s near you), what we’re hearing (CDDB, the database that recognizes music tracks by the sequence of track lengths on a CD), and what we’re not hearing (looking up recent Tweets near you is like incredibly powerful eavesdropping). Our devices can also tell us what our friends think of what we’re seeing: the folks at GraffitiGeo, which combines restaurant reviews with social gameplay, are working on an iphone app that will allow users to point the phone’s camera at a venue and see an overlay of relevant comments about it from other users. That means our world will have “information shadows.” Augmented reality amounts to information shadows made visible.

There are implications far beyond uber-convenient restaurant reviews. As sensors become ubiquitous, they will create new business opportunities and transform existing businesses. We are already seeing new classes of applications for health and fitness, from NikePlus, Phillips DirectLife and Fitbit on the consumer end of the spectrum to real-time outpatient monitoring.

And while on the Internet, an interesting addition to the ongoing debate about whether the Web is increasingly making us a tribe of illiterate, fact-challenged misanthropes: Rubbish, says Dennis Baron, whose new book A Better Pencil makes this case:

Every communication advancement throughout human history, from the pencil to the typewriter to writing itself, has been met with fear, skepticism and a longing for the medium that’s been displaced. Far from heralding in a “2001: Space Odyssey” dystopia, Baron believes that social networking sites, blogs and the Internet are actually making us better writers and improving our ability to reach out to our fellow man.

4. Shashi Tharoor is not the only minister in this Cabinet capable of making impolitic statements. Here’s Jairam Ramesh, on the subject of climate change:

You have also mentioned that India has not been able to educate other countries about what it is doing. In a general way, is it just the lack of education and knowledge, or is there more to countries like US and other Western nations blaming India?

The media always needs a punching bag. The world needs a villain, and India and China have emerged villains of the piece — India more than China. But I think a part of the problem is of our own making.

We have not gone out to the world, have not engaged the world and explained in a proactive manner what we are doing, what our compulsions are, what we can do, what we cannot do.

I think we should lecture less to the world; we should be less sanctimonious. We should try to engage the world in a spirit of dialogue. And that becomes very difficult for Indians because we have a sense of superiority to the rest of world.

I think a little less superiority, a little more humility on the part of India will serve us very well in the future.

5. Random Reads, the blog the publishing house launched in July, is worth a weekly stop on your surfing calendar. The latest entry is from Ashok Banker, who ‘interviews’ Ravan. [Acclaimed Hindu statesman Rajan Zed said… oh darn, this is becoming a reflex now; every time I read a news story I go ‘What would Zed have said?’ 😦 ]

6. Is India still uncomfortable with erotic art and literature, was the subject of an NDTV debate featuring Ruchir Joshi and Shobha De [whose overwrought descriptions of sex give erotic literature a bad name].

In the land of Kamasutra and Kajuraho and newer discoveries each year, ‘still’?

In passing, I continue to marvel at the odd places I stumble on erotic art in this country — in the brilliant frescoes that adorn the sanctum sanctorum of Guruvayur, most recently.

My best find [aide memoire to self: find and toss in the pictures and notes from that trip] was during a random bike ride along the outskirts of Chingelput district, in Tamil Nadu. I chanced on this village, stopped at a local tea shop for a cutting and a chat, and one thing led to another that in turn led to a local sitting pillion on my bike and navigating me through uncharted footpaths to a forested region, in the midst of which I found this massive tank.

Its walls and steps were colored the green of mildew; its water was a deeper, more forbidding shade of jade — but once you got past the neglect, I focused on intricate series of steps leading into it, and discovered breathtaking erotic art covering every inch, all the way down to the water line.

My guide was a bit short on details about the time period of the tank, and the identity of the bloke who caused it to be constructed; subsequent inquiries at the village produced the story of some king of long ago, name long since forgotten, who caused a half dozen such tanks to be built in his territory. The king deemed it essential, a village elder told me, that everyone from the youngest of children be totally exposed to, and conversant with, all manifestations of human sexuality. And his preferred mode of sex education was the sculptures he caused to be carved on the sides of the tanks, which back in the day was the social node where everyone gathered, mornings and evenings, for bath and gossip. [Acclaimed Hindu statesman… et cetera]

‘Is India still uncomfortable with erotic art and literature’, indeed!

7. Historical fiction was the subject of two previous posts [here, and here]. One more — this time, from one of my favorite book blogs, Jai Arjun’s Jabberwock. Jai’s subject is Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a book I’ve been looking forward to and am yet to acquire and read. The money quote, that addresses the genre’s perennial fascination:

When we learn about history primarily through cold details set out “objectively” in textbooks, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that the distant events we take for granted – events that now appear set in stone, almost as if they could have unfolded in no other way – were the accumulated products of the personalities, life experiences and whimsies of human beings who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time: real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas, biases and prejudices of their own. One of the things Mantel does wonderfully well in this book is to show how Cromwell’s life and character – in conjunction with those of the others around him – came to have a bearing on the vital events of his time.

8. Tim Kreider, in NYT’s Happy Days blog, suggests that life has become one long search for self-validation. The money quote:

A colleague of mine once hosted a visiting cartoonist from Scandinavia who was on a promotional tour. My colleague, who has a university job, a wife and children, was clearly a little wistful about the tour, imagining Brussels, Paris, and London, meeting new fans and colleagues and being taken out for beers every night. The cartoonist, meanwhile, looked forlornly around at his host’s pleasant row house and sighed, almost to himself: “I would like to have such a house.”

One of the hardest things to look at in this life is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back — Lot’s wife, Orpheus and Eurydice — are lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield.

10. Good music, Rahman — pity about the movie.

11. Great read: The Most Violent City on Earth, from Spiegel Online.

12: Great read, to round out the dozen: Amitava Kumar’s entry for NPR’s Three Minute Fiction: Post-Mortem. If that floats your boat, here’s more. [Link courtesy Amit Varma on Twitter]

13. What the hell, let’s make it 13. Remember Asif Zardari getting on the receiving end of a fatwa for his, what’s the word, warm greeting of Sarah Palin on the sidelines of the UNGA this time last year? Now check out Silvio Berlusconi’s best imitation of Joey from Friends, vis a vis Michelle Obama.

Lovely, long weekend coming up. Might return for a brief post Sunday on the India-Pak game tomorrow if it proves to be worth writing about; else, see you all Tuesday.

Happy Dussera, all; play safe.

Eye Browse

1. Umberto Eco’s piece in the Guardian about the importance of good handwriting struck a nerve. I used to pride myself on my neat, even writing. Now, I have a collection of fine writing instruments [one of my obsessions], and a handwriting that deteriorates into the realm of the illegible after about two sentences. From Eco:

The crisis began with the advent of the ballpoint pen. Early ballpoints were also very messy and if, immediately after writing, you ran your finger over the last few words, a smudge inevitably appeared. And people no longer felt much interest in writing well, since handwriting, when produced with a ballpoint, even a clean one, no longer had soul, style or personality.

And while on that, a recent study indicates that handwriting is the best lie-detector test there is.

2. Social media familiarity breeds contempt, seems to be the moral of this Times Online story on Stephen Fry.

3. “When the pet develops rabies and starts biting its own mentors, it must be put to sleep, no way around it,” a senior general involved in military operations in the North-West Frontier Province told me in late April, suggesting a definite new realization — if not change of heart altogether — that as far as the military establishment was concerned, the militants had gone too far. Until that point, the Army’s claims that it was doing its best to hunt down “miscreants” were met with skepticism across the board.

That clip is from a Foreign Policy article suggesting that Pakistan is making more progress in its war against terrorism than an increasingly cynical world is prepared to acknowledge. It ends however on a prophesy designed to further fuel the cynical view that most of Pakistan’s ‘successes’ are calculated pitches for its fund-raising drive:

And we should not be surprised if, as a result of Muslim Khan’s interrogations, his mentor Maulvi Fazlullah also gets captured — perhaps timed to coincide with President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to New York to host a “Friends of Democratic Pakistan” summit on Sept. 24, at which he is expected to urge the world to better compensate Pakistan for its efforts against extremists, who under the tutelage of al Qaeda still pose a grave threat to the entire region. But perhaps now it’s time the international community shows it is willing to reward success.

4. I can never get enough of writers talking of writing [the NYT series is a favorite, often visited/re-visited resource]. Here, for those interested in such, is today’s find.

5. A blog post gives six reasons for politicians to take to Twitter. Clip:

Now what you can do with Twitter – Dr Shashi Tharoor on his visit to his constituency met with a girl who has lost both her legs and on the same day he tweeted –

Visited a girl who lost both legs to a train when crossing the track bcoz road to her home was underwater. One more tragedy of underdevpmnt”

“Will look for prosthetic help for the girl. In her final year of high school. Desperately poor. A couple of Jaipur Feet cld change her life

That 280 letters changed the life of that girl. The same day itself offers for help came from all over the world and last I heard that girl is undergoing treatment. Could such quick response possible without Twitter? What does that show? Doesn’t that show that politicians and elected representatives can use twitter to spread the word faster than any other media out there?

Indeed. The catch? How many politicians are articulate enough to use that tool to get the right message across?

6. In The Atlantic, Mark Bowden has a great piece outlining, against the backdrop of TV coverage of the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, how journalism has been ‘outsourced’ to political hit men, business interest groups and such.

This process—political activists supplying material for TV news broadcasts—is not new, of course. It has largely replaced the work of on-the-scene reporters during political campaigns, which have become, in a sense, perpetual. The once-quadrennial clashes between parties over the White House are now simply the way our national business is conducted. In our exhausting 24/7 news cycle, demand for timely information and analysis is greater than ever. With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery. The very smart and capable young men (more on them in a moment) who actually dug up and initially posted the Sotomayor clips both originally described themselves to me as part-time, or aspiring, journalists.

Then again, who needs journalists? As this piece in Columbia Journalism Review underscores, the new business model is to spend a lot of money on a telegenic talking head, and let the news gathering end of the business go whistle. While on the media, Nikhil Pahwa linked on Twitter to this spiderweb of inter-connectivity between politicians and journalists in India. Open link with caution — guaranteed to change the way you read newspapers/watch television. 🙂

7. From TED via Mental Floss: Oliver Sacks in prime form on the subject of hallucination.

8. Transparency International has just released its annual report on Global Corruption. To no one’s surprise, India wins high placement.

9. Sometimes, all it takes to provoke a really stirring debate is a really badly written opinion piece. This qualifies. The writer sets out to trash contemporary Indian writing in English on the basis of book titles and blurbs; the resultant debate, now two weeks long and counting, is proving to be the gift that goes on giving. Wade right in — the last word hadn’t been said yet.

10. What happens when one of the most famous opening sentences in literature is rendered in Emoji? This:

Moby Dick is passe. Here's Emojidick

Moby Dick is passe. Here's Emojidick

The New Yorker, on the project. Seems to me we’re coming full circle — from symbol-based communication to alphabets, and now back again.

11. Having observed two of the four UN General Assembly sessions [as much of each as I could stomach] out of the five during my tenure in NY, I found them incredibly boring affairs. But then, they never had Muammar Gaddafi, spelt any one of 50 ways,  over during that time. My loss. Your gain.

Over and, for the day, out.