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Shakespeare and Verlander
April 3, 2011 4:46 AM   Subscribe

Why are we [U.S.A.] so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers? excerpted from sportswriter Bill James's book Solid Fool's Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom. Via: [slate.com]
posted by Fizz (105 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
anti-intellectualism
posted by DU at 5:08 AM on April 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Whatchoo talkin' 'bouts, I right goodly!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:16 AM on April 3, 2011


Because most people can't put together a coherent paragraph, while almost everyone can throw a football or hit a hockey puck or kick a soccer ball. Because you can not make a good video montage of writers warming up at their computers or going through rough drafts with a red pen. Because athletes are in good shape and look good in pictures in magazines and on Wheaties boxes. Because parents can't jump up in the stands and brag about their little Tommy winning the essay-writing competition. Because it takes decades for a writer to mature into a real talent, while you can pick any number of basketball prodigies that haven't even finished high school. Because sports television is worth billions of dollars while "book television" is practically an oxymoron.

I came up with these in about five minutes. Most of you could probably do even better.
posted by spoobnooble at 5:32 AM on April 3, 2011 [14 favorites]


Apropos of nothing: remember back when William S. Burroughs got caught up in that doping scandal? Those were the days, eh?
posted by spoobnooble at 5:34 AM on April 3, 2011 [22 favorites]


The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years.

Why is he [Bill James] so good at developing nonsense and so lousy at developing logic?

He claimed earlier that there was something in London's water at the time (figuratively speaking) that allowed people like Shakespeare, Bacon, Marlowe & Jonson to come to the fore as writers.

And yet, even London did not produce a Shakespeare every 10 or 15 years. It produced exactly one Shakespeare throughout all of its history. Or rather, Stratford-on-Avon did.

To turn his silly analogy around, "If England did the same things for young baseballers, every city would produce a Babe Ruth or a Ty Cobb or at least a Joe DiMaggio every 10 or 15 years", which is just patently stupid.

Or maybe it's just an elaborate self-referential joke, to show what a crap writer he is?
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:34 AM on April 3, 2011 [27 favorites]


We have plenty of good writers, and American novelists of the 20th century were among the best in the world. The internet posts more good writing in a single day than I could read in a lifetime. What really need are people who are numerate, who can keep accounts and balance their personal budgets. We also need people who can think like economists, who understand data, statistics and probabilities.
posted by Faze at 5:36 AM on April 3, 2011 [21 favorites]


I agree with Bill James, actually; there is no perceived "need" for more writers. We don't identify and allow them to exercise their talent at a young age. Look at China: obsessed with identifying talented individuals in a variety of activities, they produce musical prodigies seemingly effortlessly. The USSR produced powerful chess players in the same way, and Korea seemingly has an inexhaustible supply of better Go talent than any other country in the world. Why? Because they care about those activities, and the US does not.

Of course, we used to be able to say that we produced more great computer programmers, engineers, scientists, and other "practical" things as well as athletes; that athletes were just the visible edge of the knife, that the US dominated innovation and high-technology and industry.

Now we produce consumers and muscled thugs to entertain the consumers.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:38 AM on April 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


"too proud to follow their lead"...?
posted by ook at 5:40 AM on April 3, 2011


Now we produce consumers and muscled thugs to entertain the consumers.

Wow, you're not being sarcastic, are you?
posted by pts at 5:44 AM on April 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Why are we [U.S.A.] so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?
Because 40+ years of a conservative war against public education has had the desired results?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:52 AM on April 3, 2011 [22 favorites]


The bar for success as an athlete seems to be set somewhat lower here than it is for writers. It's not exactly reasonable to to set the standard to "good enough to go pro" on one side of the balance and "legendary talent whose name shall echo down the centuries" on the other.

Topeka, Kansas may not produce many Shakespeares or Bacons, but how many Babe Ruths has it produced either? I'm sure there are as many professional writers from Kansas as there athletes.
posted by nowonmai at 6:05 AM on April 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


Wow, you're not being sarcastic, are you?

Why do you think I'm wrong? Our educational system is not designed around the idea of finding and developing intellect. Have you worked in an environment where you dealt with the average American adult? Not white-collar professionals – the average. Most are innumerate, many read at a very low level, and almost none have any computer skills.

However, if you ask them about Brett Favre or Kobe Bryant, they will not only know who they are but will have a strong opinion about them, their team, and their performance.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:05 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Have you worked in an environment where you dealt with the average American adult?

To answer that question: Yes.

I have no idea how you can possibly make such sweeping generalizations with the confidence you seem to have. I'm not even saying you're wrong—I just don't understand how you could possibly know what the "average person" thinks or who that even is, and that's not even getting into your dismissal of people with famously high athletic achievement as "muscled thugs."

I see where you're getting this—you'll just have to trust me when I say I really do understand the emotional core of your argument—but I'm not sure it's a helpful way of approaching the issue.
posted by pts at 6:24 AM on April 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


I tend to switch off pretty fast when somebody opens an article like this by immediately using Shakespeare as a reference point. Yes, I get that he's one a handful of literary figures whose name everybody is going to recognise, but comparing a modern US city to 17th-century London makes absolutely no sense.

I believe that there is a Shakespeare in Topeka today, that there is a Ben Jonson, that there is a Marlowe and a Bacon, most likely, but that we are unlikely ever to know who these people are because our society does not encourage excellence in lit­erature.

Shakespeare's London was pretty godawful at encouraging excellence in literature if you weren't born in the right circumstances - and almost nobody was.
posted by anaximander at 6:25 AM on April 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


I see where you're getting this—you'll just have to trust me when I say I really do understand the emotional core of your argument—but I'm not sure it's a helpful way of approaching the issue.

Generally speaking, I think that a genuine effort to produce people who are strong in the intellectual fields (writing, math, etc.) would not only produce great examples (like Shakespeare) but would also have collateral impacts on the people surrounding them, in the same way that everyone knows about athletes. If, during your education, you saw great minds being rewarded and championed, you would strive to be like them, even if you never could match their raw accomplishments.

You might never be Alan Turing, or Edsger Dijkstra, but you might know of and admire them, and educate your children about who they are.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:41 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


...and educate your children about who they are.

I see your point.

Admittedly this is a bit of a derail, but the point you're making is exactly why the popularity of "childfree" thinking among many of my variously nerdy peers is so upsetting to me.
posted by pts at 6:45 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


You wait till writing becomes an olympic sport, then all hell will break loose in the rush for gold. Performance enhanced writing will lead to a new breed of super writers (all of whom will claim that they are natural). Multi-million dollar deals will become the norm. And we will curse the day, and fondly remember the days when writers wrote for love not money.

Of course, most of my predictions have come to naught...
posted by greenhornet at 6:45 AM on April 3, 2011


Haven't read the article, but if you define "writer" reasonably to include screenwriters, writer-producers, advertising creatives, publishing securities analysts, and feature journalism / thematic non-fiction (e.g. Macom Gladwell), you'd see large, robust, competitive and (at the top) very-well-paid talent pipelines, in which Americans are far MORE dominant relative to the rest of the world than Americans are in sports, where in many important "genres", if you will, America produces little or no talent -- think, soccer, cricket or rugby -- and in others, sees its share constantly decline
posted by MattD at 7:05 AM on April 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


There are two theories that present themselves. One is that the talent that assembled in Shakespeare's London was a random cluster, an act of God to locate in this one place and time a very un­usual pile of literary talent. The other theory is that there is talent everywhere; it is merely that some societies are good at developing it and other societies not so good.

You may choose which side of this argument you wish to squat upon, but I am on the (b) side


So, explain Silicon Valley, Mr. (b) side.

Dude is a troll.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:08 AM on April 3, 2011


I agree with Bill James, actually; there is no perceived "need" for more writers.

That's only part of what James says, though. Here's where when it comes to being an idiot, Bill James is a viking:

We need new athletes all the time because we need new games every day—fudging just a little on the definition of the word need. We like to have new games every day, and, if we are to have a constant and endless flow of games, we need a constant flow of athletes.

So, right. If this were a hundred years ago, okay; however, in 2011, the vast majority of all sporting events are seen on television, and certainly we have enough football games and baseball games and track meets and who knows what the fuck all else on video by now that we could just rebroadcast them from now until the end of time if it were just about having "new games every day." If you haven't seen them before, they're new to you! Our need for a constant flow of athletes is exactly that of our need for a constant flow of writers. They are equivalent.

I'm really disappointed in Salon lately, by the way. It seems like they've been running some seriously crap articles, though this is about the shittiest I've read in ages.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:09 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Generally speaking, I think that a genuine effort to produce people who are strong in the intellectual fields (writing, math, etc.) would not only produce great examples (like Shakespeare) but would also have collateral impacts on the people surrounding them, in the same way that everyone knows about athletes.
His analogy doesn't support that, though. The US doesn't have both world-class athletes and a general population of super-fit, physically-active non-athletes. We're a nation of world-class athletes and couch potatoes who worship world-class athletes from the sidelines. I think you could argue that this is a product of the way we treat athletics in elementary school and junior high: it's a recruiting ground for high school and ultimately professional athletes, not a chance to educate everyone about the pleasures and benefits of physical activity. We'd win fewer Olympic medals but be a healthier, stronger country, I think, if we ditched this and aimed for broad-based athletic mediocrity.

And his suggestions for treating writing like sports have the same problem:
First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes' success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they're still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.
That's about identifying and promoting young children who have the potential to be superstars. I don't know that it's necessarily going to do anything about the poor literacy and numeracy skills of the general population. I don't necessarily oppose all of his suggestions, but I don't think they're going to address the skills issues of people who aren't seen as potential Shakespeares, and they might encourage us to write off kids who aren't seen to have the potential to make it to the varsity playwriting team.

Also, you'd have to have much more faith than I do in the potential to identify which eight-year-olds have the aptitude to become Shakespeare. I don't think we even have any idea which writers working today will be considered great writers in a hundred years, much less which elementary school students have the potential to achieve literary greatness.
posted by craichead at 7:11 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Shakespeare's London was pretty godawful at encouraging excellence in literature if you weren't born in the right circumstances

The evidence rather strongly suggests otherwise, doesn't it?

But Bill James' argument is weird. None of the factors for success he mentions applied to Shakespeare.

Was he competing as a playwright at a young age? no.

Was he recognised at a young age? Not so far as we know.

Was his success constantly celebrated? Not really.

Was he paid for potential rather than delivery? Certainly not.

The reasons for the flowering of Elizabethan literature are not simple, and not easily reproduced. They probably had to do with the openness of English society, it's position on the margins of Europe where classical culture could inspire but not constrain, the freshness of English as it emerged from French/latin dominance, but also the residual strenght of native dramatic and literary tradition, etc etc.
posted by Segundus at 7:16 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


how many outlets in high school, college, professional for how many different sports? Now contrast that with how many for "writers." Take University of Connecticut: how many girls and guys do they recruit just for basketball (now counting other sports)? How many "writers" would they recruit the same year? How would they know who the outstanding high school writers are and what would they do with them if they recruited them?

Just a silly question. Why are we so good at recruiting our military and lousy at recruiting athletes?
posted by Postroad at 7:25 AM on April 3, 2011


And of course, the US is not in fact all that outstanding at developing athletes.
posted by Segundus at 7:26 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


(...Up above, I just realized I wrote "Salon" when I meant to write "Slate." I'm not crazy about Salon at the moment, either, although most of my problems with them have to do with their film critic. And while he kinda sucks, he hardly seems as offensive as this bunch of crap.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:27 AM on April 3, 2011


Sports attract more sex and money. Next Question.

/enjoys both writing and sports immensly
posted by jonmc at 7:33 AM on April 3, 2011


So, explain Silicon Valley

People relocate here for a chance at a technical job, similar to L.A. and a career in acting. I don't know that someone born and raised in the Valley is more likely to be a talented developer if that's what you were getting at.
posted by cj_ at 7:39 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why are we so good at recruiting our military and lousy at recruiting athletes?

We are not, actually, very good at recruiting our military. Were we better at it, we wouldn't have needed to institute stop-loss a few years back.

I'm glad you posted this. Before reading, I was under the incorrect assumption that Bill James knows what he's talking about.
posted by incessant at 7:39 AM on April 3, 2011


Case in poynt: this artikul.
posted by ReeMonster at 7:46 AM on April 3, 2011


If he thinks the problem is too few writers and too little competition, he clearly hasn't read the slush pile at any agent or publishing house—or much of the output of NaNoWriMo. Competition doesn't necessarily produce quality and the problem with measuring writing skill—unlike athletics— is that it is subjective. We don't have "writing bees" because that would be absurd on the face of it.

I recently read about a professional writer in her 40's who is retaking the SAT's to inspire her children and learn math. She was unable to get higher than I think a 690 on the writing section (out of 800). Now, she could be a crappy writer who happened to make it—but her blog is perfectly readable and it's hard to believe she's not performing better than even many of the most talented teenagers. The problem is she's probably missing something about the algorithm by which the essays are judged. And that's why this is silly: I bet Shakespeare wouldn't get an 800 either even if he wrote in modern English and he might score seriously low because innovation is often unrecognized or punished in writing.
posted by Maias at 7:54 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


it is my very strong belief that there is talent everywhere and all the time

Don't ask questions if you refuse to believe that your underlying assumptions might be wrong.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:03 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Physician, heal thyself.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:06 AM on April 3, 2011


We don't have "writing bees" because that would be absurd on the face of it.

True dat. They have no fingers and the honey gets the keyboard all sticky.
posted by jonmc at 8:10 AM on April 3, 2011 [14 favorites]


I bet Shakespeare wouldn't get an 800 either even if he wrote in modern English and he might score seriously low because innovation is often unrecognized or punished in writing.

Indeed - in fact he wouldn't have got 800 from Voltaire, because in French eyes a few good bits were not enough to make up for the absurd and barbaric English trait of not conforming to Aristotle:

"On croirait que cet ouvrage est le fruit de l'imagination d'un sauvage ivre. Mais parmi ces irrégularités grossières, qui rendent encore aujourd'hui le théâtre anglais si absurde et barbare, on trouve dans Hamlet, par une bizarrerie encore plus grande, des traites sublimes, dignes des plus grands génies. Il semble que la nature se soit plue à rassembler dans la tête de Shakespeare ce qu'on peut imaginer de plus fort et de plus grand, avec ce que la grossièreté sans esprit peut avoir de plus bas et de plus détestable."
posted by Segundus at 8:16 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Good writing comes from good thinking, which should also be encouraged.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 8:19 AM on April 3, 2011


And that's why this is silly: I bet Shakespeare wouldn't get an 800 either even if he wrote in modern English and he might score seriously low because innovation is often unrecognized or punished in writing.

I dunno. Part of being a good writer is the ability to adapt the tone and style of your writing to your audience and context. It's kind of like how Picasso was capable of doing a good realistic sketch. The SAT is a poor place to expect you'll be rewarded for being innovative. I think that given enough background information about the SATs and what kind of writing passes for ideal in that context, Shakespeare could probably get an 800. And if he couldn't, it would just say something previously unknown to us about his shortcomings (i.e., he sucks at writing 1,000 word persuasive essays).

I think Bill James is tilting at windmills here. We certainly should encourage and educate kids to be better writers, but I don't think the problem is that we're trying to make too many of them into athletes.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 8:20 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Why are we [U.S.A.] so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?

do the number of professional athletes in the u s a outnumber the number of professional writers?

275k books were published in the usa in 2008

this is neglecting magazines, screenwriters and all sorts of different things

Athletes, coaches, umpires, and related workers held about 258,100 jobs in 2008. Coaches and scouts held 225,700 jobs; athletes and sports competitors, 16,500; and umpires, referees, and other sports officials, 15,900.

we're probably missing some employees here, too

but the bottom line is that bill james' statement isn't proved by the facts

furthermore, it's entirely possible that people will look at the culture of the u s 500 years from now and wonder at the wealth of great writers we had and wonder why they don't have that in their time and place

no, bill, you're going to have to come up with some hard figures to prove your case
posted by pyramid termite at 8:24 AM on April 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


here's the figures for authors, writers and editors

conclusion - if you eliminate support personnel such as editors, coaches, ect - professional writers outnumber professional athletes by nearly 10x

bill doesn't know what he's talking about
posted by pyramid termite at 8:30 AM on April 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


You wait till writing becomes an olympic sport,

Writing was an Olympic sport; or at least writing poetry was. Just as painting was. Or architecture.

Reason they aren't anymore? Sports was once considered to be a thing for amateurs. There was a time even training was frowned upon, and unsportsmanlike. Poets, painters, and architects did their thing outside the Olympic competitions too, making them dirty professionals.
posted by ijsbrand at 8:33 AM on April 3, 2011


Only from a sports nut can you hear someone equating a major league player to Shakespeare.

Although there is an arguement to be made about Adrien Peterson being poetry in motion.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 8:45 AM on April 3, 2011


The problem with bill james' argument, as pyramid termite said, is that we could have double the number of books published, and he still would not be satisfied. We have programs that churn MFA's out by the dozens every year, yet he would not be happy if they churned out 100s.

His argument is disingenuous, although he might not realize it. He's looking for respect, not numbers. I would say there are probably many writers as good as Shakespeare, but few as well known and almost none as lionized. He wants the pictures of Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods to be replaced by Jonathan Franzen and Cormac Mccarthy. He wants people to aspire to be writers. He wants them to be the cultural vanguard, something which hasn't happened since the 50's, when authors were replaced with rock stars as cultural icons.

Now how to change a culture's values so they align more with you? Difficult proposition. It would require the full force of the government and media, using every trick of propaganda. And even then it might not work. The US government tried to flood the airwaves with anti-drug propaganda with little success. A couple of after school competitions will not create the next Great American Writer, it would create the next 50 somewhat decent American writers.
posted by zabuni at 8:48 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because parents can't jump up in the stands and brag about their little Tommy winning the essay-writing competition.
How about, "because 'winning' at essay-writing is a partially subjective decision, and so there are strong social disincentives to saying 'that person wrote better than Shakespeare!'" There's no way to prove you're right, people's prior beliefs will naturally contradict you, and unless you're so clearly right that you can change most of their beliefs you'll look like a fool.

Saying "that guy hit more home runs than Babe Ruth" is much safer - there's still quibbling over definitions and fairness, but in the end you can sit down and count.
posted by roystgnr at 8:50 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am not familiar with Bill James but just reading this ridiculous collection of simplistic ignorant unargumented statements on totally unrelated topics (American football and Elizabethan drama! and consumerism! and oh then throw in something about racism) makes me conclude that yeah he probably doesn't know what he's talking about.

It'd be too much to deconstruct every single line of bullshit. The stupidity of even saying "where is our own modern day Shakespeare" is astounding. Nevermind picking Shakespeare as a term of comparison, that alone... Hello, it's not the 17th century anymore! that was what, half a millennia ago, a few things have happened in between, no? Why not go back alll the way and wonder, where is our modern day Homer?

But hey, we still have theatre and novelists and poets of all levels of talent, including great ones, and many from the US. "Lousy at developing writers", what? I'm saying this as a non-US person, what the hell, American literature up to this very day is one of the most rich and prolific and influential bodies of literature in the English language, and not only (market considerations and publishing trends aside) - and oh look there, we also have television and cinema, which didn't exist in the 17th century, and fantastic talent in that area, where the US dominates, not only for commercial reasons, or even, not only for all the 'wrong' commercial reasons, and it's an area where Americans excel at fostering talent, and financing it, more than in many other countries. Is he kidding or just deliberately forgetting about all this?

Also, why go on about Shakespeare and London? if he wants to go and pick literary geniuses from the past to moan the US doesn't have anything like that anymore, oh good old times gone, then he could mention I don't know Twain or Melville or Hemingway any other giant among the American classics.

What the hell has it got to do with sports anyway? like other countries don't have their own massive market for popular sports? Has football in the UK hindered the development of talented British writers? Maybe it has, I just don't see it...

If you want to discuss literary writing specifically, it'd be a lot more interesting to examine the current publishing market, and how this has an impact on the writing being produced and reaching the public today and becoming popular. Leave Shakespeare and football out of it though. Or not, but, if there's a connection there, it's how sports are part of popular culture and where writing reflects that and how. Rather than how the popularity of football detracts from the development of writing talent.

We certainly should encourage and educate kids to be better writers, but I don't think the problem is that we're trying to make too many of them into athletes

Heh yeah, I can't think of two careers that are more apart in life. I sure can't picture modern-day Shakespeare having a teenage crisis, hmm what do I want to be when I grow up, be a genius dramaturgist and poet, or become the next Kobe Bryant?
posted by bitteschoen at 8:53 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Honestly, there is so much good writing out there, much of it from America, that I can't even keep up with it all. I read over fifty books last year and only two or three were bad, and a dozen or so were incredibly good; ten years ago, I'd be lucky to read one or two books a year that I found "incredible." There's more writing that moves me deeply (fiction or non-fiction), and of the writing that doesn't accomplish quite that much, it's usually at least competently written and not unenjoyable -- the bar for 'mediocre' is a lot higher now.

This is the case for both fiction and nonfiction. Storytelling and presentation in both spheres has improved a ton over the past decade, and in all the artistic mediums I can think of that come to mind, not just writing.

I find the sheer volume of truly good material overwhelming, and I'm happy for it. Now the issue is filtering that stuff out of the larger soup.
posted by Nattie at 8:54 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I read over fifty books last year and only two or three were bad, and a dozen or so were incredibly good; ten years ago, I'd be lucky to read one or two books a year that I found "incredible."

Really? I find the mine of old books to be just as rewarding as the latest shiny bits just published. Of course the latest shiny bits are soon buried and become part of the ever growing vein of books to mine. It just depends on frame of mind, reading the old versus the new. The good thing about old books is we have maps that show where to find the best ones, unlike new books which are more difficult to sort out. My favorite finds are old forgotten books that are really good and completely unknown and unread anymore i.e. your LibraryThing entry has "1" owner, no reviews or cover image on Amazon, first edition only and long out of print, etc..
posted by stbalbach at 9:03 AM on April 3, 2011


For some reason I just had a vision that in five hundred years, teenagers in Lesotho, by that time the world's dominant power, will be pouring over annotated editions of the Collected Works of Matt Groening, trying to understand the archaic language and marveling at the fact that anyone ever found this shit entertaining. Their teachers will try to impress them with the fact that the same milieu that produced the great Groening also gave rise to such talents as David E. Kelley, Aaron Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes, and the kids will role their eyes and go back to playing interplanetary ping pong or whatever it will be that kids will do for fun in the year 2511.
posted by craichead at 9:22 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Kids/parents in sport get:
- Fitness tax credits;
- Time off of school;
- A section in the local paper on their achievements;
- Volunteer help and support from the community to help their teams;
- Sponsors;
- Coaching;
- Clinics and camps that are publicly funded, often with big names to guide them;
- Constantly lauded with the prospects of making it big.

Kids/parents with aspiring writers get:
- Libraries that are constantly cutting back due to lack of funding;
- Constantly told about the unlikelihood of making it big.

Is it no wonder that children aren't growing up to be well-trained writers? There's nothing out there to suggest that time spent writing is well-spent.
posted by dflemingecon at 9:24 AM on April 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


I was ready to join the pileon harshing on TFA but he really does have two very good points:

1. Athletes are encouraged and richly rewarded for exercising their talent from the beginning; they are encouraged in the little leagues, in high school, and in college before they go professional. At every level there are scouts, agents, promises of future wealth, and awards aplenty. The infrastructure of that sort for all pursuits academic is pitiful by comparison.

2. His final point about the sports world desegregating because they cared more about winning than discriminating is well taken.

Unfortunately, both of these points may owe themselves to the firmness of sports statistics, from winning itself through the action stats that might indicate the skill of individual players within a team. By contrast, whether your novel "wins" or not is at best nebulous, and a novel which "wins" for half your readers may very well repulse the other half.
posted by localroger at 9:27 AM on April 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Civil_Disobedient: "Dude is a troll"

It's Slate. They're self-professed contrarians, which is a nice way to say that they're professional trolls.
posted by octothorpe at 9:36 AM on April 3, 2011


Have you worked in an environment where you dealt with the average American adult? Not white-collar professionals – the average. Most are innumerate, many read at a very low level, and almost none have any computer skills.

How do you think this would compare with the average Londoner in Shaekspeare's time? (I'll take the computer skills as read.)
posted by biffa at 9:37 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


"How come we're the biggest military and economic and cultural and musical and research and energy and IT superpower? WAAH WAAH WAAH! We're only number one in everything but other countries still exist! WAAH WAAH WAAH! Let's destroy all the other countries then we'll be number zero!"

Don't worry, America - your penis is BIG. WE CAN ALL SEE THAT.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:40 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Have any of you been to Topeka? It's a shithole. I can imagine the next Shakespeare coming out of there, but only as a means to get the fuck out.
posted by hellojed at 9:52 AM on April 3, 2011


Don't worry, America - your penis is BIG. WE CAN ALL SEE THAT.

And as you amply demonstrate, no country lacks shitheads.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 10:04 AM on April 3, 2011


I wrote about this more on my own site, but yeah: James is offering up a seriously bad argument. Bureau of Labor Statistics stats show more than two and half times of professional writers in the US (excluding technical and PR writers) than professional athletes, and while the pro writers make less on average (it's a $15k spread), they can also do their jobs longer, so in the long run it's a wash. That's just one point; he makes a number of other bad points as well.

The irony here is that he and I are in general agreement: It'd be nice to cultivate and celebrate young writers with the same alacrity we offer our promising athletes. But making a bad argument to support your point is not the way to do it.
posted by jscalzi at 10:05 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


localroger: no one disputes athletes are encouraged and richly rewarded and so on - and not just in the States.

Now, sports are also a business and an industry connected to other industries (advertising, tv rights, etc.) in a way that's not even comparable to sports in any past era.

But surely this is not the first era in the history of humankind that encourages and rewards athletes! Since well about the time of the ancient Greeks, no? if not earlier.

The other interesting thing is, in the Elizabethan era mentioned by the author of this piece, theatre itself was very popular, it was mass entertainment, so if we were to go on finding today's "equivalent" of Shakespeare (for the sake of oversimplification), we'd have to look for him (or her) in the field of television and film, because THAT is the modern-day Elizabethan theatre.

And are television and film two fields of writing that are unrewarded, underdeveloped, and where the US sucks at developing talent? hmm?

He's picking all sorts of unlikely comparisons and omitting even the basics of the history, context, facts of the things he mention. I understand he's a sports writer, he's not required to know much about history of literature. But then, maybe he shouldn't really venture in that territory. And he should know a bit more about the history of sports.
posted by bitteschoen at 10:09 AM on April 3, 2011


The reasons for the flowering of Elizabethan literature are not simple, and not easily reproduced.

I think this has some truth to it, but more from a Marxist cultural critique lens than anything else. The question before us should by why WE in the 21st century privilege Elizabethan literature, especially Shakespeare.

Wills was never forgotten, but his star shone much less brightly for a couple of centuries until a rebirth in the 19th century. There are reasons one can attribute to that, such as similarities between the emergence of the merchant class in Britain under Elizabeth and the emergence of widespread suffrage and a real middle class during industrialization. In many ways the Elizabethan age was a birth of the modern (it can be startling how Shakespeare's complex language brings forth truths about the human condition and a self-awareness that you rarely find before him). Yet that speaks more about our own reasons for admiring him than about any particular achievement of his own, which surely was a matter of multiple factors.

But Topeka, or more properly Kansas, is probably more akin to, say, Elizabethan Lancashire. Besides, there is a fair share of writers from Kansas, among them Richard Rhodes and Damon Runyon.
posted by dhartung at 10:14 AM on April 3, 2011


The bit about race at the end of the article is poorly considered, to say the least. Sports are a part of larger society, but James seems content to act as if they're not. That seems incredibly intellectually dishonest or lazy.

I mean, people have already expressed my problems with the article, but just to contribute: every day, on just Metafilter, there's probably a book's worth of writing printed to the web that might not necessarily be masterful (although there are a lot of good writers here) but is at least intelligent. If you go through the other social media sites there are millions of people putting up millions of books worth of written content every day, which James ignores because it's convenient for his point.

I mean, I agree that there's a problem with anti-intellectualism in our education system, but James just gets it totally wrong.
posted by codacorolla at 10:17 AM on April 3, 2011


Is there a writer shortage? Are we running out? Fuck no. America produces a surplus of writers. You can't stumble in a Starbucks without sloshing your caramel macchiato onto an aspiring novelist. Heck, there's a whole industry of MFA and "creative writing" programs set up to cater to them. That most of this bloodless, vapid herd never make it big is a Feature, not a Bug.

Bemoaning America's disinterest in littera-tyoor seems to me the quiet tantrum of the overeducated feeling overlooked. You know why Americans don't read novels any more? It's because most of them fucking SUCK.

Sure, some of my favorite writers are under-appreciated -- I'd love to see big glossy magazines on the rack in grocery stores with Gene Wolfe or Harry Crews or Barry Hannah (RIP) on the cover. But there is no dearth of good books being written by Americans. And if you have to look a little harder, dig a little deeper, browse the internet with a bit more avidity to find them -- well, they don't show lacrosse on the Sunday sports shows, but that hasn't stopped me from following the game.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:30 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The other interesting thing is, in the Elizabethan era mentioned by the author of this piece, theatre itself was very popular, it was mass entertainment, so if we were to go on finding today's "equivalent" of Shakespeare (for the sake of oversimplification), we'd have to look for him (or her) in the field of television and film, because THAT is the modern-day Elizabethan theatre.

Exactly. Think David Simon, not David Foster Wallace.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 10:37 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the article has more of a point than most of us here are admitting.

Many cultures have had "golden ages" in which out of small populations, disproportionately immense artistic value was produced. Yes, the U.S. does have authors who produce works of lasting value, but isn't our potential much higher, and don't we over-value derivative works (sequels upon sequels)? In some cases competition helped creative golden ages (the Greek dramatists competed for contests). It seems you need not just talented individuals but a whole culture of artists to be inspired and react against each other. You need discerning audiences. For some works (symphonies, Russian novels), you need a culture with a long attention span, we we obviously no longer have. Historically, artists have also been helped by a mixture of popular enthusiasm and aristocratic standards, by strong artistic guilds, and by cultures that supported career paths that moved between artist and performer (Shakespeare was also an actor, Mozart and Beethoven were also soloists).

It's not just Shakespeare's period we're not living up to. Pop music in the decade from 1964-1974, for example--compare that with pop music from 2001-2011.

Could be that in our focus on the measurable (standardized tests) we've lost sight of more intangible talent, as others have pointed out.

Whatever the causes or solutions, I think the first step is to admit that the U.S. does indeed have a problem, that in spite of our many accomplished creative screenwriters and musicians, 21st century America don't seem to be leaving to posterity as much of lasting humanistic value as some other historical cultures.
posted by Schmucko at 10:49 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is such provincial claptrap. If he is talking about the last ten years, then maybe he has a point, but over the last 50 to 100 years American lit has easily been the best the world has to offer. The best novels, short stories, poetry. The best magazines (even though it is now a shadow of its former self, nothing from Europe ever came close to equalling The New Yorker). The best newspapers. Now europe can lay claim to several timeless masters such as Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, or Nabokov* but on aggregate, it's the USA all the way.

*though I think a case could be made for N as an American writer. We could lay claim to him. His best novels are certainly his American ones.
posted by puny human at 10:49 AM on April 3, 2011


I would think that if you improved oral communication skills then writing skills would follow. But if not paying attention to writing skills would get upper middle class white women to stop contributing to Modern Love with their weird confessional stories about failed relationships, I'm all for throwing more money towards athletic development.

I'm an irritable grump because every stupid contemporary fiction book out there might be full of ridiculous navelgazing.
posted by anniecat at 10:50 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seems to me like London, back then (and still today as well), was a place that attracted talented people to it, such as writers. Kinda like LA or New York in the US. You can't really use population as a substitute for, say, the atmosphere of a place. Topeka now and London then may have comparable populations, yes, but they also probably have/had a completely different feel to them.

Incidentally, that was an awkwardly written paragraph. Well, I am from the US after all. I suck at sports, though.
posted by majonesing at 10:50 AM on April 3, 2011


The thing is, society encourages children to do things society cares about. TFA's point is that society cares much more about sports than about things that are more important.

It was a little different after Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the importance of scientists was suddenly realized. One thing that was established was the National Science Fair, now the ISEF. But as you see it in October Sky the prizes were scholarships, and for the "rocket boys" the NSF was as much a ticket out of their shithole coal town as a basketball scholarship is for a young black man in the ghetto today. I don't know what happened but when I went to the ISEF in 1981 I don't remember scholarships being part of the prize structure. I placed third in Physics and went home with a few hundred dollars to spend on parts, but it was not a life-changing experience.

Another thing that happened was the AEC outfitted a fleet of trucks to tour the nation's schools, showcasing the wonders of physics and the atom. The van visited my father's rural Mississippi school when he was 12, and he was hooked; he decided he wanted to discover new elements himself. He read everything he could find (much of it via an inter-library loan he'd previously not known existed) and got himself a scholarship, moved to New Orleans, got his bachelor's degree, decided that even though all the elements seemed to have been discovered he liked academia, got his Ph.D. And that's how I came to be born in a city with a college physics lab to play in instead of on a farm outside of Laurel, MS.

I don't think those vans have run for a long time.

If you want to buy sports equipment you can find it anywhere in the country. If you want electronic parts, well at least you're not at the mercy of Radio Shack now that you can order them online. If you want glassware or chemicals you're a terrorist.

Every city of any size has a Little League. Every school of any size fields sports teams which occupy their participants throughout the year. Science fairs? Some schools have 'em, some not so much. Labs? Ditto. Clubs for such things? Some do, but unlike sports participation doesn't count for class credit.

We reward kids for doing things we care about. When it comes to sports vs. anything else, our educational system sends a nice clear signal on that.
posted by localroger at 10:50 AM on April 3, 2011 [14 favorites]


while almost everyone can throw a football or hit a hockey puck or kick a soccer ball.

I can't, my cousins raised in Southern California can't hit hockey pucks or play soccer. My boss can't ice skate or play tennis. She spent all of her time reading as a child and still has a weird disdain for "jocks." Like she sees people as nerds or jocks.

Not being a sporty person, I honestly feel a loss. I think people who have been athletic are at a great advantage later on economically because they aren't doing something isolated.

I have fine writing skills, but I have a pile of resumes from prospective interns and folks who want to fill an entry level grant writer position and all of their samples generally are good enough. All the cover letters go out of their way to emphasize how great their writing skills are. So what? There are tons of folks with great writing skills. In fact, writing for a living (even as a grant writer) is pretty damn tiring (and it's only 30% of my job, really). I seriously wish I'd been an accountant. I loathe thinking up stupid sentences. I swear, sometimes I just want to pretend I'm deaf and mute and don't speak English.
posted by anniecat at 11:02 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's not just Shakespeare's period we're not living up to. Pop music in the decade from 1964-1974, for example--compare that with pop music from 2001-2011.
I don't think that anyone writing for the equivalent of Slate in 1967 would have been aware that they were living in a golden age of pop music, and I think it's even less likely that they would have thought that living in a golden era of pop music was significant. It's easy to say in retrospect that the '60s were a golden age, but I'm not sure that would have been apparent at the time. I think that most serious popular music critics at the time would have thought that jazz was the only significant form of popular music and that rock music was always going to be second rate and unsophisticated. The popularity of rock and the relative unpopularity of jazz, they would have said, was a sign of the intellectual and artistic decline of the culture. And I'm not even sure I think the idea of the '60s as a golden age of pop music is objectively true in any meaningful sense. The pop music of the 1960s is currently more popular than the pop music of the 1920s, but will that be true in forty years? In four hundred?

I have no idea what's going to be considered great literature in five hundred years, and neither do you. For all you know, we are living in the golden age of something that will be considered deeply significant in the future, and we don't realize it, because we're too busy fixating on ways that we don't measure up to perceived golden ages of the past.
posted by craichead at 11:07 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Not being a sporty person, I honestly feel a loss."

Not being a Conservative, I feel a loss. Not only that, but I honestly think they're out to get my shit. And by "shit" I mean social program spending. Bastard jocks.
posted by sneebler at 11:24 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


She spent all of her time reading as a child and still has a weird disdain for "jocks."

I always found the nerd/jock conflict odd. One, because I spent my childhood both reading voraciously and playing sports (I stopped playing in high school, but never completely lost interest).

Secondly, hardcore sports fans are the geekiest motherfuckers on the planet, they memorize obscure stats (some even create new mathematical formulae for them), the wear merchandise constantly, and there's even the trading card thing. Plus they love to baffle outsiders.

Let there be peace here.
posted by jonmc at 11:38 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


jonmc: "I always found the nerd/jock conflict odd. One, because I spent my childhood both reading voraciously and playing sports (I stopped playing in high school, but never completely lost interest).

Secondly, hardcore sports fans are the geekiest motherfuckers on the planet, they memorize obscure stats (some even create new mathematical formulae for them), the wear merchandise constantly, and there's even the trading card thing. Plus they love to baffle outsiders.
"

Walking Sports Database Scorns Walking Sci-Fi Database
posted by Rhaomi at 11:49 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Bill, stick to baseball.
posted by kmz at 12:08 PM on April 3, 2011


I take great offense to this article! Calling out my state and town to make a point!
posted by Sweetmag at 1:08 PM on April 3, 2011


I don't think that anyone writing for the equivalent of Slate in 1967 would have been aware that they were living in a golden age of pop music, and I think it's even less likely that they would have thought that living in a golden era of pop music was significant.

people knew something significant was going on at that time, whether they liked it or not - the change in music and music technology was mind blowing and the social implications - does the phrase counter-culture ring a bell? - were quite obvious

the spread of multi-track recording, eclectic arrangements, improved amplification and albums that were more than a collection of 10 to 12 songs were significant - it was a technological explosion and the music of that time reflects that

I think that most serious popular music critics at the time would have thought that jazz was the only significant form of popular music and that rock music was always going to be second rate and unsophisticated.

who cares what the critics thought? - it was what musicians like miles davis thought that really mattered

The popularity of rock and the relative unpopularity of jazz, they would have said, was a sign of the intellectual and artistic decline of the culture.

well, no, it was the lack of appreciation for "classical" music that was considered a sign of decline

And I'm not even sure I think the idea of the '60s as a golden age of pop music is objectively true in any meaningful sense.

it's the era that provided us with the basic templates of pop style that we still have today, although some of the music seems to be wandering pretty far afield from that and the rest of it is sounding fairly tired and unoriginal

maybe you could make an argument that the dominance of rock/pop music is starting to end right now - but it's had a 45 -55 year run as the main style of music - neither jazz or classic modern "american songbook" pop had that long a run, partially because their beginnings weren't as well distributed and documented, partially because they competed against each other for much of their heyday
posted by pyramid termite at 1:49 PM on April 3, 2011


Rhaomi, thank you for post that link. I have not smiled like that in a long time.
posted by Fizz at 1:50 PM on April 3, 2011


For all you know, we are living in the golden age of something that will be considered deeply significant in the future,

Classic video games.
posted by ovvl at 1:59 PM on April 3, 2011




We also need people who can think like economists, who understand data, statistics and probabilities.


Way to kill all the state lotteries and bump my taxes.
posted by notreally at 2:00 PM on April 3, 2011


I'm a Renaissance Drama prof: I teach Shakespeare every year, and I write on his work, too.

This has less to do with America's ability to produce 'great writers' than with our artificial inflation Shakespeare's status to "The Greatest Writer That Ever Lived Anywhere", which is utter BS. I think one of the real problems is that we've eliminated most of the other canonical or historical figures from English classes, while Shakespeare is the only one left. He's become shorthand for everyone else, from Chaucer to Spenser to T.S. Eliot. Shakespeare's ability is unquestionably high -- but is he a better writer than, say, Milton? Or George Eliot? or Woodsworth? Or Poe? Or Dryden? Or Pope? Or Yates? Or Woolf? How do you measure? Why would you need to?

As for the material means of production: London's professional theatre was the first direct literary market in England, and as such it drew talent. Writers did make some money writing pamphlets and such, but mostly non-theatrical writers were supported by patrons, not by purchasers. The only direct market in the country was the playhouse, and you could make a pretty crappy living by selling plays for a couple of pounds a throw. And they needed new plays all the time, so there was always a market. But this output was thought to be garbage, as a given. Darthung and Bitteschoen are perfectly right: the parallel is TV scriptwriting.

Sir Thomas Bodley, who re-founded the Bodleian Library in the late 16th century, made arrangements for the library to receive a free copy of all the books listed in the Stationer's Register, but he refused to accept plays: "I can see no good reason to alter my rule for excluding such books as Almanacks, Plays, and an infinite number that are daily printed of very unworthy matters--handling such books as one thinks both the Keeper and Under-Keeper should disdain to seek out, to deliver to any man. Haply some plays may be worthy the keeping--but hardly one in forty.... This is my opinion, wherein if I err I shall err with infinite others; and the more I think upon it, the more it doth distaste me that such kinds of books should be vouchsafed room in so noble a library."

Plays were considered trash. When Ben Jonson published his plays as "Works" in the high-end, expensive Folio format, in 1616 he was jeered at. The Shakespeare Folio was produced after his death by the King's Men, who wanted to elevate their house playwright to this higher standard: and since the King's men were the only playhouse who could produce his plays, they were effectively advertising their own wares by doing this.
posted by jrochest at 2:11 PM on April 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


The comic Kathleen Madigan has a bit about being a prodigy: what if everyone's a prodigy, but they just don't know at what? What if she made a cup, and they said, "Holy, Christ, lady, that is an amazing cup..." The thing is, you could be an amazing writer and no one, including yourself, would ever know it; but it is impossible to think you're an amazing athlete and not know. America loves to cultivate talent. If it can't metric that talent, you're pretty much on your own.

Meanwhile, sports takes practice, and they practice all the time. Writers don't. I don't mean "I took my MacBook to the coffeehouse to let it work on my novel," I mean sitting down every day and Stephen Kinging out 2000 words/day. People who aren't getting paid to be writers don't practice writing, there simply isn't that kind of time in the day. How many writers are on Mefi with no other "practice?" I had to put battery acid in Pastabagel's underwear to get him to attempt a blog because anyone who's seen his stuff here knows he has something to say, but even the simple process of setting up a blog becomes a barrier, and then what? Title first, or first paragraph? Or last? They you get hungry. There are a million reasons not to practice.

Sports isn't like that. It is physically demanding but the path is very, very clear. Run these laps, push this weight, practice these skills, and every day you know exactly where you stand in relation to your ultimate goal. America is supremely good at defining paths to success. It doesn't ever guarantee results, but you can't say you don't know what to do next. Writing (and any entrepreneurial endeavor) doesn't offer that. You're on your own, and btw you're going to fail. Probably.

However, and this is where Bill's comparison collapses, there is considerably more opportunity for success in writing than in sports. Talent helps, but practice alone is sufficient; you don't have to be Paris Review quality to earn a living, and even through blogging you can make a surprising amount of money.

But the most important reason why sports are encouraged and writing is not is that sports does not demand anything of the audience, writing does. If we want to encourage writers, we'd have to encourage readers, which is impossible because movies and TV are easier. If we want to encourage sports watchers, all we need is marketing.

Sports wins.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 2:24 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the James article is an incoherent mess.

If you look at the Elizabethans, a country of about 4 million English-speakers (and I have no idea how many of them were even literate) produced (say) four literary geniuses. Say, one per one million. You can get similar ratios for the Romantic period.

Nothing I see around me today says that this ratio has changed at all. One in a million? Then America alone should be producing about 300 "major-league" writers today. The UK? Another 50 or 60. Which seems about right. There's literally no end to the talented writers out there today, certainly much more than one person could ever hope to read. We have plenty of writers. The problem today isn't a shortage of talent - the problem is that there are so many talented writers that most of them never reach a mass audience, and can't make a living at it.

One problem is that each and every one of today's writers is competing directly for an audience not just with each other, but also with Shakespeare; whereas today's athletes aren't expected to directly compete with Babe Ruth.

Which explains why there's no money in it. My ebook reader came pre-loaded with 100 public-domain classics, for free: why should I now spend my entertainment dollar to pay for a Dan Brown ebook, when I can download a free file of the complete Shakespeare?

And you can make a similar case for musical talent: Four million Elizabethans produced ONE John Dowland; at that ratio, you might expect fifteen "major-league" musicians worth listening to in the UK today, maybe 75 in the US. I'm not seeing a shortage of talent there, either.

An Elizabethan with leisure could read and support the four geniuses of the age. Even with our vast increase in leisure and discretionary spending, there simply aren't enough hours in the day to read the output of the hundreds of talented writers that we have today.

As has been said above, I'm much more concerned about the imbalance between America's nurturing of athletic talent, versus its neglect of scientific talent. The problem with writing today is a surplus of talent driving the price and value down, not a shortage of talent.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 2:26 PM on April 3, 2011


For all you know, we are living in the golden age of something that will be considered deeply significant in the future,

My vote is for television, and I expect that in 300 years some old guy will be complaining about how our culture hasn't produced anything like the The Wire while ignoring some art form that doesn't exist right now.

But the most important reason why sports are encouraged and writing is not is that sports does not demand anything of the audience, writing does. If we want to encourage writers, we'd have to encourage readers, which is impossible because movies and TV are easier. If we want to encourage sports watchers, all we need is marketing.

Do you actually believe that sports doesn't demand anything of the audience? At a minimum, you have to know the rules. It might be easy to miss, because many people do know the rules to most major sports, but those rules had to be learned. You ever go to a baseball game with someone who doesn't know the difference between a ball and a strike? I have and they didn't really enjoy it; it demanded something of them that they couldn't do. The rules are only sufficient if you want to understand a sport at a basic level; there are plenty of people who know a lot more about the sport that get more out of watching it than those who don't. These people put just as much time and effort into developing their ability to "read" a sport as anyone ever did to developing their ability to read a book. I never played football, so while I enjoy watching a game, my brother-in-law the former linebacker gets more out of it than I do. He's able to do that because he worked really hard to learn things about linebacker play. Maybe we do need to do more to develop readers, but the problem isn't that watching sports is somehow "easier."
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 3:04 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


American University pays The Jersey Shore's Snooki more than Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:25 PM on April 3, 2011


I'm an irritable grump because every stupid contemporary fiction book out there might be full of ridiculous navelgazing.

I agree with you. I blame that navelgazing tendency for the current popularity of YA fiction amongst adults. Too much "adult" fiction sacrifices story for style and insight. Contemporary fiction has been fenced into a pen of Granta-fed bougie professors, smoking cigarettes and furtively cheating on their spouses.

American University pays The Jersey Shore's Snooki more than Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison.

I'm sure Shakespeare wasn't the richest person in England, either.

Reminds me of something. I've been reading Hunter S. Thompson columns lately, and in one of his columns from the 70s, he has an interview with a skier named Jean-Claude Killy. At the time, Killy was a wealthy, world-famous sex symbol. His interview with Thompson was diffident and removed - Thompson had to fight to get the man to say a single unrehearsed sentence. Back then, Killy was on top of the world, and Thompson was just another stoned writer from the magazines.

Nowadays, Thompson is an icon - hell, he even has a few shout-outs in that kid's movie Rango - whereas Killy is now exactly the sort of person I have to look up on Wikipedia to remember who he is.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:32 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sure Shakespeare wasn't the richest person in England, either.

This touches on something that has been hinted at upthread, but not specifically mentioned, that I can see: the difference between professional sports & professional writing here is completely about economics.

Public interest in sports generates prime-time & cable TV "bums on seats" which means revenue from advertising & endorsements. This generates a huge pot of money to spend on talent scouts, coaches, trainers, publicists, marketers, telecast production values & technical equipment, not to mention an entire secondary industry of media pundits, who also serve to talk up interest in the games, in a self-reinforcing & self-perpetuating system.

The chicken-and-egg nature of this system can be seen in the vastly differing amount of attention paid to the top professional mens' sports, versus more marginalised sports, like womens' netball for example, or lawn bowls (but even these have their own scaled-down economies; niche versions of the major league mens' games).

Basically, the more your newspaper or news program talks about Sport X, the more it figures in peoples' imaginations, the more they'll watch or bet on it, the more revenue there is to build up the sport, which brings us right back to more media attention again.

This also involves a basic structural fact, which is that sports - like politics - provide a steady stream of material for journalists to write & talk about, not unlike pigs at a feeding trough. You could fill about 80% of a paper or news show with only 20% effort just by sending your hacks out to find out what's been happening in Parliament or Congress or That Team, interviewing a few people, and generating a bit of controversy out of minutiae.

To get the other 20% of your news, you need to do one-off shit like investigative journalism, or sending a crew out to tape a fire at a mattress factory - activities that require higher overheads because they're not always in the same time & place, and don't have entire internal publicity machines churning out stories ready-made for lazy journalists.

Literature could never operate the same way, and therefore not generate the same aura of "newsworthiness" or water-cooler-value unless the top writers in the country somehow agreed to churn out a short story, poem, or novella a week, that could fill the analysis & discussion sections of the media outlets every Monday morning. Literary outlet is too sporadic for the kind of consistent media spectacle value that sets up the self-perpetuating feedback loop of attention & revenue that some sports have achieved for themselves.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:06 PM on April 3, 2011


the difference between professional sports & professional writing here is completely about economics.

And yet not so long ago the best professional athaletes got paid squat. Check out John Kay's piece on Wayne Rooney and Sir Stanley Matthew's from March 29th Financial Times. (If the link gets you wall paid, try googling "financial times economic rent")
posted by IndigoJones at 4:40 PM on April 3, 2011


Our educational system is not designed around the idea of finding and developing intellect.

Most acute and succinct observation I've seen on MeFi in weeks. Many, many books have been written, and thousands of papers ... but anyone can go see it for themselves (long list of the obvious omitted) ... and yet we're USA! USA! USA! slowly sinking into idiocracy.

Our education system has gotten so bad that some of us actually toying with allowing it to be privatized. That will certainly add to the level of imagination, creativity and individualism abroad in the land, won't it?

Rome Redux.
posted by Twang at 4:41 PM on April 3, 2011


The great irony of the Information Age is that, since everyone has access to pretty much all the information that has ever been recorded, there's far, far, far less demand for new information, particularly with regard to creative stuff. The Fine Arts are permanent. They're not going anywhere. Everything that's old is new to somebody--usually a lot of somebodies, and those who are familiar with it can chew it over and over for ever and ever. We've got enough to digest for a kajillion years. Our cultural gullets are overflowing. Who needs more?

Sports, on the other hand, are ephemeral. There will always be demand for more football. And in order to entertain us in any meaningful way, there must be a league. And there must be a system of lesser leagues feeding that league. And there's got to be people in suits whizzing around in the background making everything run smoothly. And we need people in factories making all the merchandise with logos on. And so on, ad infinitum. That's literally millions and millions of people, from little kids to multimillionaires, all for just one sport.

And then there are all the other sports. Lather, rinse repeat. That's a lot of jocks!

Writers, though... Writing may be far more important than sport, but it simply doesn't require nearly the same manpower.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:52 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


(I should probably clarify: I am pro-arts and anti-sports. The above is intended as observation, not opinion.)
posted by Sys Rq at 4:54 PM on April 3, 2011



Our educational system is not designed around the idea of finding and developing intellect.


Only partially true. Remember the Tiger Mothers and the prep schools and places like New York's Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. The overscheduled upper class who have to slot in spelling bees and soccer. We're crap at developing scientific and intellectual talent in the vast middle and lower classes, but we have the best universities in the world and the places that feed into the Ivy League clearly know how to develop intellect.

The problem is we don't democratize that and it's incredibly racist in outcome if not necessarily by design. And then, we don't provide enough funding for the PHd's we *do* turn out in science to actually stay in science.
posted by Maias at 4:54 PM on April 3, 2011


I'm kind of surprised at the claim that the US is any good at developing athletes. I thought we mostly paid to get them from other countries. Certainly the per-capita Olympic medal count always seems to favor Australia, Belarus, the Caribbean, etc...
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:46 PM on April 3, 2011


Why are we [U.S.A.] so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?

A premise in this argument needs some serious proving.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:47 PM on April 3, 2011


TheLastPsychiatrist:

"Meanwhile, sports takes practice, and they practice all the time. Writers don't. I don't mean 'I took my MacBook to the coffeehouse to let it work on my novel,' I mean sitting down every day and Stephen Kinging out 2000 words/day."

Well, no.

I happen to know a whole lot of writers -- from aspiring to old pros -- and lots (most) of them write every single day. Some of them write less than your arbitrary numerical value of 2k words, but then some write more, because (as it happens) some people are able to write more than others for no particularly good reason than that they are fast writers. Speaking from some experience, the amount of wordage a day is less important than writing on a regular and predictable basis.

I think you're correct that the writers who don't practice don't write; you're incorrect that that writers don't practice. You're also incorrect that there's no time to write; if it's important to someone to be a writer, they'll make time to do it.

Also, this --

"If we want to encourage writers, we'd have to encourage readers, which is impossible because movies and TV are easier."

-- is completely dumb. It's not impossible to encourage readers; it's not even actually difficult. It's like any other entertainment; provide it in a manner they enjoy and they eat it up. I'm no fan of Stephenie Meyer as a writer, but her making millions of tween and teen girls into readers, who then look for other books to read because there are only so many Twilight books, thereby discovering Holly Black, Scott Westerfeld and Cassie Clare? Bless that woman to bits, I say.

Basically, your view of writers and readers doesn't really jibe with my own experience with either.
posted by jscalzi at 5:54 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


American culture is its greatest export. It's so perfect and seductive - everything from pop culture to 'high culture'.

I believe that there is a Shakespeare in Topeka today, that there is a Ben Jonson, that there is a Marlowe and a Bacon, most likely, but that we are unlikely ever to know who these people are because our society does not encourage excellence in lit­erature.

Shakespeare wrote about sex and violence and revenge and horror and all that bloody fun stuff that your favorite 'guilty pleasure' writer writes about. If he was around today he'd have a show on HBO
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:58 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


not so long ago the best professional athletes got paid squat

Perhaps the markets got bigger with the exponential rise in globalised distribution of media - itself an economic change based in technological advances.

As a reasonably frequent traveller to developing countries, I'm always amazed to see the level of fan support for English soccer teams. Everybody seems to be into their chosen club: Arsenal, Chelsea, Man United...

Not too long ago, these games would have been essentially impossible for the average Burman or Burkina Fosoan to watch. Now, with satellite TV & internet streaming, they truly have a global market, and I wouldn't be surprised if the total value of a franchise like Manchester United didn't eclipse the entire GDP of many of the countries where their fans are based.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:02 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


For all you know, we are living in the golden age of something that will be considered deeply significant in the future,

Classic video games.


nah, the classic video game period was maybe the 16 bit era? then again, there are some amazing games out now, and the year has barely started. there's also all the indie stuff coming out on PC, the App Store and XBox Live...

i think it's TV. looking from the outside at American TV there are so many amazing shows I can't even begin to watch or download them all. the Wire, Breaking Bad, Weeds, Archer, Venture Brothers... again, i haven't seen these, but i know there's a Golden Age there.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:03 PM on April 3, 2011


Check out John Kay's piece on Wayne Rooney and Sir Stanley Matthew's from March 29th Financial Times.

Here's a direct link to economist John Kay's article on his personal site, minus paywall hassle.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:05 PM on April 3, 2011


Why are we [U.S.A.] so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?

Because we're short-sighted fools and so easily distracted that we keep voting in right-wing politicians who give billions in tax breaks to the military, to prisons, to the wealthiest Americans and American corporations, while at the same time taking away billions in funding to education and culture. We reap what we sow, and the brain drain is already in progress. This isn't rocket science.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:51 PM on April 3, 2011


jscalzi:

I know real writers practice. I'm specifically not talking about real writers, but people who want to be writers, as compared to those who want to be athletes. From high school, athletes train two hours after school. Do high school writers do that? If they do, great, but again, the point is that it is "easier" to structure daily work-out time than it is to get a kid in front of a desk.

But my real focus was the reader-- yes, I do think it is hard to encourage readers. You bringing up Twilight supports my point. There is no logical progression from Twilight to any other kind of reading. It's the same argument people made about Harry Potter, and previously about the LOTR. Lots of people read those books and never read another book again. They've developed a love of those books, which is great, but not of reading. Grab ten random people: are they better able to tolerate an entire football game with teams they don't know, or a novel written by an unknown?

I'm not trying to argue with you, because I basically agree with you. But my point has more to do with infrastructure, promotion. You interested in sports? Have a seat, here's some Fritos, let me walk you through the scores. Oh, you're interested in Twilight? Great-- it's On Demand.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 11:08 PM on April 3, 2011



But my real focus was the reader-- yes, I do think it is hard to encourage readers. You bringing up Twilight supports my point. There is no logical progression from Twilight to any other kind of reading. It's the same argument people made about Harry Potter, and previously about the LOTR. Lots of people read those books and never read another book again. They've developed a love of those books, which is great, but not of reading. Grab ten random people: are they better able to tolerate an entire football game with teams they don't know, or a novel written by an unknown?


huh? my sister thought Twilight was crap, so i gave her Salem's Lot and Dracula. she's already a huge reader, but what's stopping other people from doing the same? and how many fantasy fans got into the genre because of LOTR or books like Harry Potter? the first books i read where those 'New Jedi Academy' Star Wars books. crap, but they got me into better stuff

I'm not trying to argue with you, because I basically agree with you. But my point has more to do with infrastructure, promotion. You interested in sports? Have a seat, here's some Fritos, let me walk you through the scores. Oh, you're interested in Twilight? Great-- it's On Demand.

Stephen King does this in intros, closing bits, and sometimes just straight up having his characters recommend books.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:14 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, man, I saw the thread title and saw Bill James, and the fantasy article that I read was how we actually have all these great writers right now, but we lack the proper statistical tools to evaluate them, so Bill James came up with a way to predict the quality of writers' future works and allow us all to kickstart fan-fic prodigies on their way to the next Great American Novel…

Then I read what he actually wrote, feeling myself getting dumber the whole time. Then sports solved racism.
posted by klangklangston at 12:18 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Today I rode my bike past the UC Berkeley stadium which is undergoing a half-billion $$$ renovation. The football coach at UCB is also the highest paid University of California employee at something like $3 million per annum. This is at effing CAL which was once the envy of the academic universe. That's why.
posted by telstar at 1:18 AM on April 4, 2011


She spent all of her time reading as a child and still has a weird disdain for "jocks." Like she sees people as nerds or jocks.

You know, as a child I would watch American high school movies and think "This has to be a gross exaggeration of reality. If this was real then you'd have whole swathes of the American adult population permanently twisted and scarred into some weird jock v. nerd dichotomy". So, half marks for me then?
posted by atrazine at 3:44 AM on April 4, 2011


We live in a country with 300 million people who are healthy, literate, and have at least a few free minutes each day to write. There were maybe 10,000 such people in England in Shakespeare's time. I am sure we have many, many people who have at least the same innate writing talent as Shakespeare.

The difference between writing and sports is that it's easy to filter out a handful of exceptional athletes from a massive pool. It's hard to filter out a handful of exceptional writers from a massive pool, since no one agrees what "good writing" is. There's a Shakespeare out there, but he's hidden by a gigantic pile of fanfic and Law & Order scripts.
posted by miyabo at 6:43 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


If this was real then you'd have whole swathes of the American adult population permanently twisted and scarred into some weird jock v. nerd dichotomy".

look at our politics lately?
posted by pyramid termite at 7:19 AM on April 4, 2011


TheLastPsychiatrist:

"There is no logical progression from Twilight to any other kind of reading. It's the same argument people made about Harry Potter, and previously about the LOTR. Lots of people read those books and never read another book again."

The overall and verifiable rise of sales in the YA book segment in the last decade, and in particular the fantasy YA book segment, wishes to disagree with your anecdotal apparent distaste of Twilight and Harry Potter. Likewise the expansion of the fantasy genre in the wake of LoTR, and particularly in the 80s and 90s, as the Hobbit lovers moved on to other fantasy writers.

Also a useful counterpoint to the general sense of gloom and doom re: authors, reading and publishing: "publishing in 2010 was as profitable as it has ever been."
posted by jscalzi at 7:40 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also a useful counterpoint to the general sense of gloom and doom...

"While the improvement in the economy helped all publishers in 2010, companies where profits improved all pointed to two main contributing factors—cost controls and skyrocketing e-book sales."

For which read, "firings". So let us say, mixed good news for the industry.

Also, Ms Meyers has been carrying more than her weight:

"Lagardère Publishing, home of the Hachette Book Group, had a decline in sales and earnings, due almost entirely (and entirely in the case of the U.S. subsidiary) to substantially fewer sales of Stephenie Meyer titles in 2010 compared to 2009."
posted by IndigoJones at 1:01 PM on April 4, 2011


I wish I could find it, but we had some random old ad from a paperback at one of my old offices that was basically an ad for advertising other books in paperbacks: "Did you know that 100 percent of the audience reading your ads already love reading?! Do you want your authors' books mentioned in the same breath as Dumas and Dickens?" It was awesome.
posted by klangklangston at 2:45 PM on April 4, 2011


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