The Practice of Packaging Novellas

In my current reading, I’m up to my eyes in capital-T tomes. I’m about 350 pages into George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and about 350 pages into the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. In both cases I’ve read a substantial chunk of the work, yet in both cases I’m not even at the halfway point of the narrative. Yes, it’s great to get lost in a sprawling, richly-detailed book—seriously, Middlemarch is incredible so far—but at a certain point, I yearn for something more concise, more compressed: a good novella. Only one problem: they’re not that easy to come by.

Over at Electric Literature, Tobias Carroll discusses American publishers’ reluctance to publish novellas. He bemoans the reality that the major publishing houses prefer “bloated novels and multi-volume series” to the concise style of writing found in a shorter novel. Carroll links this state of literary affairs to the American tendency towards excess. In the land of the Hummer and the triple-bypass breakfast skillet, this line of thinking goes, why should we be surprised that the door-stoppers dominate bookstore display tables?

If one wanted a different consumer-oriented explanation for the novella’s diminished role in the American marketplace, one might argue that Americans are more likely to think of value strictly in monetary terms. There may be a sense that thousand-page novels offer a better value-per-page proposition than hundred-page novellas. People only have so much disposable income, we might reason, so of course they’ll try to stretch out their money the way that Dickens stretched out his chapters. I know I fall into this trap quite a bit. I’m often reluctant to buy new poetry collections, because I’m wary of laying down fifteen or twenty dollars on, say, sixty pages worth of poems. I heartily agree that such collections may have immense aesthetic value, but, well, one can’t subsist on that.

Now, Carroll knows that the major American publishing houses do, in fact, sometimes publish novellas, but it seems that moreso than the other major forms of fiction, publishers demand that novellas be packaged within some grander context:

When Big Five publishers have released novellas—Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family, or Penguin’s forthcoming edition of Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue—they’ve generally been new editions of older works by authors who have gone on to be widely read. And there’s also the case of novellas being paired with other novellas by the same author: A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects comes to mind, as does Joe Hill’s Strange Weather.

A related technique that I’ve seen is to package a novella as part of a short story collection. Examples of such books include Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, and the English translation of Luisa Valenzuela’s Clara. In all three cases, the novella is the collection’s title story, so perhaps moreso than the methods Carroll mentions, this format may be suited to highlighting the novella in specific. In the reprint method, the novella is a selling point secondary to the author’s name, and in the multiple-novella method, two rival books must vie for attention. But in a short story collection, the novella takes the undisputed top billing.

The benefits of packaging novellas alongside short stories should be apparent. First, readers can be more confident that they’re getting a sufficient quantity of writing in exchange for their limited book-buying resources. Second, reading a novella in the context of an author’s short stories can give readers a better sense of the writer’s body of work; they can look at both the novella and the short stories and compare the author’s plotting, characterization, style and so forth when working in different formats. Maybe the author feels freer to explore scenery in the more expansive novella, or leans on shorter sentences when compressing a plot down to a short story.

However, I can also see a potential downside to this arrangement, and it has to do with the nature of collections of shorter works. If you have a collection with multiple forms of writing in it, such as a novella and short stories, and either category is stronger than the other, one may get the feeling that the weaker category is purely there as filler. Sure, a poetry anthology or a short story collection may contain pieces of highly variable quality, but in such cases one questions the author’s skill or the editor’s taste; one does not suspect that the publisher has watered down the whiskey, so to speak. But if a strong novella comes packaged with lower-tier short stories, or vice versa, the reader is more likely to be dissatisfied with the work as whole.

I felt this sense of dissatisfaction most acutely when I read a translation of Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, which came packaged with two of Kawabata’s short stories: “Of Birds and Beasts” and “One Arm.” The novella, I remember, was a wonderfully crafted and often unsettling reflection on aging and lust; the old man’s inner thoughts stuck with me for days after finishing it. The short stories, on the other hand, seemed rather slight by comparison. “One Arm” evidently left so little an impression on me that, when I later reread it in a different anthology, I didn’t even recognize it. (Considering the premise involves borrowing a woman’s arm and sleeping with it, that’s saying something.) It didn’t help that, by page count, the novella was about 5/6 of the book; that fact alone made the short stories seem really tacked on.

But what do you think about this? How would you package novellas to help boost their presence in the marketplace? Can you think of any novellas which benefited or were harmed by how they were packaged? Let me know in the comments, and as always, thank you for reading!

The A-Z Bookish Survey

Here’s a fun little survey of sorts that I discovered by way of Lauren Roland, the blogger behind Books are Only the Beginning, whose post you can read here. And you should read it: it’s fun, and I don’t think any of our answers overlap, so Lauren’s will be a different (and far less verbose) experience than mine.

Anyhow, that’s enough preamble. Onto the survey (which, for some reason, lacks prompts for the letters U and X. C’mon, mysterious originator of the meme…)!

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Author You’ve Read the Most Books From

A while back, I wrote up a list of my Top 5 most-read authors, so if you want the full details, you can go check that out. The late Ursula K. Le Guin remains in the top slot, with nine books. I’m hoping to start soon on The Complete Orsinia (ed. Brian Attebery, Library of America, 2017), a collection of lesser-known stories and songs set in a fictional Central European country, so she may perhaps hit double-digits in the near future.

I try to enforce a degree of variety into my reading habits, so I have a rule about returning to favorite authors: after finishing a book by Author X, I must read 15 books by other writers before reading another of Author X’s works. I think that helps prevent particular writers’ styles from getting stale for me. Maybe the whirlwind digressions in Larry Levis’s poetry, for instance, would get tiresome if I binged through his bibliography one collection after another. Since I space these readings out over months if not years, each revisit feels refreshing.

Best Sequel Ever

I’ll be returning to this below, but I’m not one for book series. For one thing, most of my readings in the past few years have been in contemporary poetry collections, so the notion of a book series may as well be a foreign concept to me. For another, I find that my patience for serialized storytelling is quite thin. I’ll take the small, self-contained story of one-and-done most any day.

Still, I have in fact read sequels. And in terms of improvement over the previous volumes, a good marker of a sequel’s quality, it’s hard to think of a better example than Richard III. The final installment of Shakespeare’s minor tetralogy, the play comes on the heels of the trio of Henry VI plays, and the jump in quality is vast. The Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s first, and boy, does it show. The plotting is aimless, the verse stiff, and the characters forgettable. As I write this I literally can’t remember a single event from 3 Henry VI, beyond what I know happened historically. That’s a horrible sign.

But then the cycle comes alive in its fourth and final production. Richard III may not be peak Shakespeare (it’s way too long, and Shakespeare hasn’t figured out the right way to use ghosts yet), but the title character is a solid variant on the Marlovian over-reacher, a scheming and rhetorically dextrous villain who completely owns the stage every second of the play. A forum poster once likened watching such a character to watching a Godzilla movie, because who doesn’t want to witness all the destruction they’re going to bring? I like that reading. A lot.

Currently Reading

I’m working my way through three books at the moment:

  • 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present, ed. Kathleen Hoagland (Devin-Adair, 1947)
  • Agee on Film, Vol. 1: Reviews and Comments by James Agee (Beacon, 1958)
  • The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)

I always have multiple books on my currently-reading shelf, just in case one of them starts to drag. Generally I try to pull from a variety of forms: a poetry collection, a work of fiction, a non-fiction book, etc. Given that poetry collections are often under 100 pages, I end up cycling books out of the poetry slot much quicker than I do for the prose slots.

Although, given the sheer length of 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, and my insistence on reading all poetry aloud, that one’s going to be on my currently-reading shelf for some time. Someone in my dad’s girlfriend’s family, who are all Irish, found the book at a yard sale and remembered that I liked poetry, so that was a thoughtful gift. I will say, reading the intro was a trip. The anthology is so old that 1) William Butler Yeats had only recently died, and 2) James Joyce was still considered a controversial writer in some academic circles.

The other two books I’ve obliquely mentioned on this blog before, so I won’t prattle on about them here. I quoted some of James Agee’s columns in The Nation for my discussion of voice-over in book-to-film adaptations, and I mentioned seeing Alice McDermott discuss The Ninth Hour at the National Book Festival in my write-up of the event.

Drink of Choice While Reading

I imagine the originator of this survey had something cozy and comforting in mind, some semi-obscure flavor of tea, say. Or if you would rather adopt a hipster level of self-conscious performance: absinthe. For me, though, a bottle of Coke will do just fine. It’s what I drink on most occasions regardless, over the well-founded advice of the dentist and my body’s sleep system.

E-reader or Physical Book

I remember this being a much more contentious discussion several years ago, when e-readers were first bursting onto the market. I really don’t have a preference between the two when it comes to works of prose. The portability and lower cost of e-books is about worth the subjective experience of holding a physical work in my hands, so the format matters very little.

Poetry is another discussion altogether: hard copy all the way. Back in 2011, I made the mistake of purchasing The Complete Works of W. B. Yeats as an e-book from Amazon, and the formatting was abysmal. Infuriating. A foul rag-and-bone shop. It was so difficult, if not at times impossible, to tell when a line broke because Yeats intended for a hard enjambment, and when it broke because the e-reader’s dimensions were too narrow to fit the line as written. Perhaps things have gotten better for poetry e-books since 2011, but I’d rather not get burned again. Give me the fixed arrangement of the page, thank you very much.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated in High School

Me, dating in high school? Good one.

Glad You Gave This Book a Chance

This is a tough one for me to answer, because I take “giving a book a chance” to mean that I had negative expectations going in. Most books I read, especially poetry collections, I have no expectations when I start. I often just pull volumes semi-randomly from library shelves, just to overcome the weight of possibility overload. And when that’s not the case, I’m reading something that a friend or a critic has recommended, so there’s not much initial skepticism involved.

Looking over my “read” shelf on Goodreads (who needs a memory when we have social cataloging?), perhaps this one fits the spirit best: The War Is Over: Selected Poems by Evgeny Vinokurov (trans. Anthony Rudolf and Daniel Weissbort, International Writing Program, 1976). I found this volume secondhand, in a very coffee-stained quality, and had it not had the backing of the University of Iowa behind it, I’d have passed it over completely. (In fact, as of now I’m literally the only one on Goodreads to have rated the book.) It’s not a great volume, but I do admire Vinokurov’s poem “The Swans,” in which the speaker imagines birds emerging from his homework. “No one would ever guess they’d flown,” the final lines tell us, “From the pages of a mathematics textbook.” That sounds about true.

Hidden Gem Book

Again, a surprisingly difficult one to get a handle on. I suppose that, despite the reported growth in its readers of late, any contemporary poet not named Rupi Kaur would fit the bill. But most of my favorites, such as Brenda Shaughnessy and Andrew Hudgins, are somewhat sizeable names within the poetry community, so to call them “hidden gems” seems disingenuous.

If I have to stick my neck out on one hidden gem book, I’ll go with Labor by Jill Magi (Nightboat, 2014), a collection that blurs the lines between poetry, fiction, and archival employee handbook. It hooked me in a way that few works of that nature do, in part because its politics are simultaneously heartfelt and direct. I mean, the book is called Labor, after all. At the moment, it only has ten ratings on Goodreads, so I think that counts as obscure enough for present purposes.

Important Moment in Your Reading Life

After ninth-grade English, I’d convinced myself that I hated Shakespeare. We read Julius Caesar about halfway through the year, and the experience was beyond frustrating. Not because I couldn’t understand the text, but because I couldn’t see how anyone could enjoy the text. As it was taught, Julius Caesar was a series of literary devices stitched together: some anaphora there, a hamartia there, a few puns sprinkled in for flavor. Completely lost in all that: the intense personal and political drama of the story, and the aesthetic beauty of the language. You know, the parts that make Shakespeare transcendent instead of testable.

In tenth-grade, for reasons I can’t quite recall, I decided to give the Bard another go, and I picked up Hamlet. It was dense, certainly, but I powered through it, reading the text aloud just to get lost in the music of verse. (If you’re wondering where that insistence on reading poetry aloud that I mentioned above comes from, it’s here.) The tense atmosphere and Hamlet’s constant waffling drew me in, and the soliloquies were as gripping as I’d been promised. I don’t think a single work has changed my mind about an author so quickly as that first read-through of Hamlet did with the Bard.

Not long after I finished Act III or so, I had my wisdom teeth removed, and couldn’t speak clearly for about a week afterward. There were many problems with being in that state, of course, but the worst at the time? Having to postpone the play.

Seriously. If you haven’t read Hamlet, go read Hamlet. I made it unofficial homework in my sports literature class, for God’s sake.

Just Finished

The last book I polished off was Ms. Marvel Volume 3: Crushed (written primarily by G. Willow Wilson, Marvel, 2015). I liked it quite a bit, even if the trade’s last issue (S.H.I.E.L.D. #2) was a bit on the grossly absurd side: it involves monsters made of regurgitated pizza dough.

Ms. Marvel is a rarity for me: a comic book I’ve read outside of an academic context. I’m fairly certain that for more people, the exception and the rule would be reversed, but that’s me for you. My first semester of undergrad, my mandatory expository writing class was themed around whether comic books counted as art (answer: yes), so I’ve read an odd smattering of titles: some World War II propaganda, the last issue of Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, etc. And in another class, we were assigned a graphic novel adaptation of (no joke) the 9/11 Commission Report. But Ms. Marvel is the first comic series that I’ve read for fun. Knowing me I’ll never catch up, but that’s fine by me.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read

Empirically, there are plenty of kinds of books that I don’t read. I haven’t read any romance novels, for example, or James Patterson-style thrillers. But I’m reluctant to categorically rule out a genre, both as a check on potential prejudices and as an admission that one’s tastes and identifications change over time.

That said: I’d probably rule out a book described as “New Age” or “spiritual.” At least at the moment, they about sound the opposite of my personality.

Longest Book You’ve Read

Having just said that: according to Goodreads, the longest book that I’ve read is the King James Bible, which comes in at around 1600 pages. I’m an atheist, but more importantly I love literature, and the Bible’s influence on Anglophone literature and the English language is, of course, enormous. Back in 2014 I made it a project to finish the KJV by the end of the year, which is manageable if you go 3-4 chapters per day.

I’d say the experience was worth it, although I’m not sure I’d recommend going to the Bible for an aesthetically complete experience. Books like Leviticus and Chronicles are famously dull, of course, but I’m also no fan of the Pauline epistles, which are also far too doctrine-heavy for my speed. But at the same, I still go back and read the parables, which remain masterworks of condensed, nuanced storytelling. How about a combined collection of Jesus’s parables and Aesop’s fables? That’d be subversively lovely.

Major Book Hangover Because of…

So, I had to look up what the phrase “book hangover” meant, and I can’t say I’ve experienced one. Perhaps I just have very fast book metabolism.

Number of Bookcases You Own

Me, owning furniture? Really, you ought to try stand-up.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times

The last book that I reread was Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf, 2011). It’s just a solid collection, and it demonstrates Smith’s comfort with both free verse and received forms. “Solstice,” for example, is a perfectly natural villanelle about reading the morning news. Actually, this book almost counts, in a spiritual sense, as a “Best Sequel.” My last semester of undergrad, we read two of Smith’s collections. First was Duende (Graywolf, 2007), which left me completely cold. Second was Life on Mars, which I fell in love with. Writing poems about David Bowie will make that happen, I suppose.

Preferred Place to Read

I can’t be there with any regularity, obviously, but I’ve realized my most productive reading comes on long distance trains, which is to say, Amtrak. I’m pretty sure I knocked out the entirety of Silas Marner that way. Not much else to say about that, so I’ll just note that the Amtrak magazine, The National, is actually quite entertaining. They even get major poets like Yusef Komunyakaa to contribute pieces to it.

Quote that Inspires You/Gives You All the Feels from a Book You’ve Read

I first came across Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” in his Collected Poems (ed. Anthony Thwaite, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), and the poem has haunted me since. In Larkin’s last masterpiece, he takes the poetic tradition of lovers parting at dawn and twists into a reflection on encroaching mortality. I once showed it to my students as an example of elegiac poetry, and the third stanza in particular caught everyone’s attention. I shall now quote that stanza in full:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

That last line hits me about as hard as Hamlet’s “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.”

Reading Regret

I desperately wish I had read more contemporary poetry—hell, even just post-WWII poetry—before I fancied that I could write any. I wish it hadn’t taken me until junior year of undergrad for Larry Levis to open my eyes to how poetry could be written. Not even how it should be written, just the possibility. Because where I came from at least, you’d think poetry ended with Robert Frost.

Series You Started and Need to Finish (All Books are Out in Series)

As mentioned above, I don’t generally go in for book series. But as with many things, Le Guin is someone I make exceptions for. Curiously, while I’ve read the entirety of her mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore series, I’ve only read the first two books in her most famous world: Earthsea.

In my experience, at least, libraries are weird when it comes to the Earthsea books. Every one I’ve been to seems to have the later books in the series, but none of the original trilogy. You’d think it’d be the other way around. Hell, the reason I read Annals of the Western Shore in the first place was that my local library actually had all the books. Availability is  a limiting factor on what one can read, after all.

At a certain point, I’ll have to just buy The Farthest Shore and be done with it. I doubt it’ll fall into my lap, the way a cheapo paperback of The Tombs of Atuan did the one time I went to Caliban back in Pittsburgh.

Three of Your All-Time Favorite Books

This post is already short-story length, so I’m just going to list three without comment:

  • Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer (Harvard University Press, 1982)
  • M-80 by Jim Daniels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (Viking, 1962)

Very Excited for This Release More than All the Others

Honestly, I don’t really look forward to releases. I’ll get to a book when I get to it.

Worst Bookish Habit

I am really bad about taking notes when reading, whether that means underlining passages, scribbling out marginalia, even just making note of page numbers. That’s come back to haunt when, say, writing posts for this blog. “Wait, when did Agee complain about voice-over again? Which one of these scores of columns was that? Was he talking about literary adaptations or war propaganda? Or was it both? Why didn’t you mark it down, past me?”

Your Latest Book Purchase

The last time I was back in the New Jersey hinterlands, after losing to my younger brother in a bowling series for the first time ever, I consoled myself by finally picking up a copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima (Knopf, 1946). I’d been meaning to read this book ever since my first semester of undergrad. Remember that class where I had to read the 9/11 Commission Report rendered as a comic book? Well, we also covered By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age by Paul Boyer (University of North Carolina Press, 1985), which had a significant section on Hersey’s book. It’s less something I expect to be good, and more something I expect to be historically interesting.

Zzz-Snatcher Book (Last Book That Kept You Up Late)

Me, sleeping at a reasonable hour? You must understand the rule of three.

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So there you have it! Hopefully some of that was interesting to you. Certainly much more interesting for me than the Great Alphabet Poem Fiasco. But that’s a story for another time. I’m practically at 3200 words here.

If you liked this, you may also like this similarly reflective, similarly scattershot post: Four Fragments on Nothing.

Recommended Readings in Sports Literature

I’ve recently finished teaching an intersession course here at Johns Hopkins—that is, a three-week course, held during the period between winter break and the start of the spring semester, on a topic of my choosing. As such, I’ve spent most of January thinking about the literature of sports, and how various writers manage to make the subject compelling to a general audience.

Speaking as someone who loves sports, someone who organizes dinner plans and reading schedules around “the game tonight,” I often find written descriptions of sporting events rather dull. I’ll read newspaper recaps or student stories about some athletic contest, and my eyes will start glazing over the text immediately. As a reader, I want more than a litany of individual events. I want an actual narrative, or an argument, or something musical.

As such, most of the pieces I selected for the syllabus take an indirect approach to sports. Rather than focusing on the outcome of the game—the thing we care about when watching sports—they tend to emphasize the beauty inherent in athletic excellence, or the personal significance that the sport holds for the characters, or what the sport tells us about society. Such approaches are not just more creative than the play-by-play method, but are also more appealing to a reader who doesn’t care about sports but still appreciates good writing.

What follows are a series of pieces from my syllabus that my students seemed to respond to the most. They all either provoked interesting discussions during class, or had a clear influence on their own creative efforts. Each of these works, I believe, tells us something about how successful sports writing functions.

“Analysis of Baseball” by May Swenson (link here)

May Swenson’s poem “Analysis of Baseball” breaks the title game down to its constituent parts, down to the people and equipment necessary for it to occur. That sounds like the driest poem in history, but it’s a blast to read because Swenson privileges sound above all else. The poem’s paratactic phrasing, insistent repetition and constant rhyming results in a work that is quite playful coming off the tongue. Consider the following excerpt:

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat’s
bait. Ball
flirts, bat’s
late, don’t
keep the date. (lines 17-25)

Obviously we can see the heavy alliteration and rhyme, which would make for a sonically dense poem to begin with. But also consider how the enjambment creates tiny pauses right as we learn the pitch has fooled the batter. Just as the pitcher has played his foe like a fiddle, Swenson has the reader right where she wants them.

On the first day of class, I had my students write imitations of the various baseball poems we discussed, and “Analysis of Baseball” was the most popular model. Conceptually it lends itself to that exercise well, and it was quite fun to hear what happened when students allowed themselves to chase the sound while describing the sport of their choosing.

“Body and Soul” by B. H. Fairchild (link here)

One of my colleagues—a tip of the ol’ hat to J. P. Allen—sent me a link to this poem when I was first designing the course, and I’m forever grateful for that. Whereas Swenson’s poem homes in on how the game of baseball is played, B. H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul” concerns itself with why people bother playing it.

An extended narrative about working class men playing sandlot baseball in Oklahoma, “Body and Soul” is at once a humorous yarn and a meditation on the nature of masculinity. These grown men, short a player for a full team, allow a fifteen-year-old to join them. The kid, to their shock, proceeds to hit a whopping five home runs against them—turns out the kid was a young Mickey Mantle. It’s the exact sort of plausible-enough tall tale you’d expect to hear from your grandfather at barbecue.

But it’s the sections where Fairchild explores the psyches of his characters where the poem really comes to life. Why, the poem asks, did the men keep on pitching to Mantle when he kept taking them yard? It all comes down to foolish, self-destructive male pride:

…they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamn much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. (lines 97-102)

As a portrait of the everyday athlete, at once sympathetic and critical, “Body and Soul” is a difficult one to top.

“Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo (link to excerpt here)

In this story—originally published as a novella, later made into the prologue to his 1997 novel Underworld—Don DeLillo chronicles one of the most celebrated days in baseball history: October 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thompson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World and the New York Giants won the pennant over their arch-rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Every baseball fan knows about this game, but DeLillo’s story makes it fresh by mostly ignoring the game itself. Instead, his narrative focuses on the spectators at the Polo Grounds, and the personal struggles they’ve brought to the ballpark. We follow the likes of Cotter Martin, a boy from Harlem who’s snuck past the turnstiles to watch his beloved Giants; Russ Hodges, the Giants radio announcer getting a sore throat at the worst possible time; and J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI director who’s just learned about a Soviet atom bomb test.

My students found this emphasis on the spectators fascinating. Most sports literature—for an obvious example, think “Casey at the Bat”—treats the crowd as a single character, a chorus of approval or disapproval. Not “Pafko at the Wall”: each member of the crowd has their own inner life, their own motivations and fears. It’s a difficult task, and it requires a lot of space (the story runs about 50 pages in my anthology of baseball writing), but it’s a challenge worth accepting.

Me, I’m always struck by how DeLillo, on the few occasions he actually talks about the game, chooses to emphasize moments of comic failure: Bobby Thompson getting thrown out a second, Don Mueller hurting himself sliding into third, etc. DeLillo saves the beautiful descriptions for the fans, especially Cotter. The passage in which the kid sneaks into the Polo Grounds is just exquisite:

Cotter thinks he sees a path to the turnstile on the right. He drains himself of everything he does not need to make the jump. Some are still jumping, some are thinking about it, some need a haircut, some have girlfriends in woolly sweaters and the rest have landed in the ruck and are trying to get up and scatter. A couple of stadium cops are rumbling down the ramp. Cotter sheds these elements as they appear, sheds a thousand waves of information hitting on his skin. His gaze is trained on the iron bar projected from the post. He picks up speed and seems to lose his gangliness, the slouchy funk of hormones and unbelonging and all the stammering things that seal his adolescence. He is just a running boy, a half-seen figure from the streets, but the way running reveals some clue to being, the way a runner bares himself to consciousness, this is how the dark-skinned kid seems to open to the world, how the bloodrush of a thousand strides brings him into eloquence. (p. 658, in Baseball: A Literary Anthology, ed. Nicholas Dawidoff, Library of America, 2002)

Even in the bleachers, “Pafko at the Wall” tells us, athletics is transformative in more ways that one.

“Roger Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace (link here)

A celebration of perhaps the greatest player in the history of tennis, David Foster Wallace’s essay does to Federer what Don DeLillo does to Cotter Martin: use language to convey a moment of kinesthetic brilliance. “Federer Moments,” Wallace calls them, and they require almost as much virtuosity to describe as they do to perform.

Wallace’s technique of choice here is the long sentence, and I do mean long: a single-sentence rally between Federer and Andre Agassi, for instance, lasts for over 250 words before finally reaching a period. But this is no show of self-indulgence. Rather, Wallace uses the long sentence to illustrate all the complexities of tennis that a player must understand simultaneously and intuitively, and also to suggest the sheer stamina needed in top-flight tennis. If you get tired just reading about Federer’s exploits, just imagine actually doing them.

But the part of the essay that most interested my students, and ended up framing a lot the discussion in subsequent classes, was an almost-digressive paragraph on the language we use to describe sports. Sports are often thought of as simulations of war, and the pageantry surrounding them, especially men’s sports, bears that out:

[I]n men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their love of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

In part, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” is a corrective to this tendency in sports writing. It leads by example in praising the aesthetic qualities of a world-class athlete, asking us to see the emergent artwork in a point well-played. The world could certainly use more lyricism and less brute force, no?

Part II of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (link to slighlty edited version here)

I’ve briefly talked Claudia Rankine’s Citizen before, as part of my list of modern classics in poetry. In particular, I noted how much I admired Rankine’s decision to use John McEnroe as a Greek chorus to discuss the various injustices Serena Williams has faced on and off the court. So I won’t dwell on that specific craft choice here.

Instead, I’ll highlight the section’s use images, as the mere presence of photographs and video stills made Rankine’s piece unique within the class. Sometimes, Rankine’s chosen images provide visual evidence of the incidents she cites, most notably the photo which closes the section: Caroline Wozniacki “imitating” Williams by stuffing towels into her shirt and skirt. But other times, they illustrate a point that’s rather difficult to express verbally.

In my most unfortunate omission this intersession, I neglected to include the image credits in my scan of the piece. As such, my students weren’t sure what to make of the image of one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits: gaudily decorated performance art outfits that make a lot noise when worn. They are designed to call attention to the wearer’s body in a public space. Including the image of a Soundsuit provides a parallel to Williams’ position within the world of tennis: a black woman from Compton, standing in an historically white and wealthy space. Her body’s mere presence, Rankine suggests, calls attention to itself.

Someone whose image is notably absent from this section: Serena Williams. If that’s not a significant and deliberate choice, I don’t know what is.

Note: the version of this piece linked above lacks the embedded images that I’ve just been praising. Quite a shame, that. By all means, consider getting your hands on a physical copy.

“The Cruelest Sport” by Joyce Carol Oates (link here)

I’ll close with what is perhaps the most straightforward piece on this list. Taken from her collection of essays on boxing (titled, appropriately, On Boxing),“The Cruelest Sport” sees Joyce Carol Oates confronting the brutal realities of a sport she greatly enjoys. Boxing is not merely violent, like football—violence is part of boxing’s very essence, the intention of every fighter who enters the ring. Who can ethically justify watching a sport where the goal is not simply to win, but to cause one’s opponent to lose consciousness?

On top of the sport’s physical dangers, Oates doesn’t shy away from the socioeconomic conditions which underpin boxing. After all, what would drive someone to enter the world of prizefighting, if not economic necessity?

Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the evident, possibly daily, dangers of the street; yet it is rarely advanced as means of eradicating boxing, that poverty itself be abolished, that it is the social conditions feeding boxing that are obscene.

This article resonated with a lot of my students, because the harmful effects of sports institutions extend far beyond the boxing establishment. The head trauma crisis in the NFL and the appalling response to sexual abuse in US women’s gymnastics are just two recent examples. Sports are useful to a writer not simply because they’re exciting, but because they offer us a lens through which to view society. How does a business treat its workers? How do institutions treat their most marginalized members?

That’s enough from me. How about you? Are there any pieces of sports literature that you think exemplify a compelling approach to the subject? Let me know in the comments.

A Top 5 List: Most Read Authors

Here’s another post inspired by a prompt from Shanah “The Bionic Bookworm” McCready: Top 5 Most Read Authors. This seems like a simple, objective list to compile: just check Goodreads and read off the results, right? Well, that will produce a list, and it is the list I went with. But there might be some wrinkles to it.

For example, I’ve a read number of omnibus collections of an author’s work, such as the complete poems of Rita Dove, Marianne Moore, and James Wright. Goodreads will count those as one book, even if they are really several individual books printed together. In absolute terms I’ve probably read more of Rita Dove than I have of some authors on this list. Yet there is something to be said about picking up a whole other volume from an author, reading more of their work with intent and not just because it happens to continue on the next page.

Moreover, my Goodreads stats only include books I’ve read since joining the site. That’s not a revelation, true, but it means that this list is skewed towards recent years. I know I read a whole bunch of Lemony Snicket and Donald J. Sobol books as a kid, but they’re not making it onto this list. Nor will this list account for re-readings. I’ve read 1984 five or six times by now, but that only gets George Orwell one point.

My point is: this list is not necessarily an accurate picture of my most read authors. But looking at it, it’s a damn fine roster, and if this list turns you on to just one of my favorite writers, then I’ll call it a victory.

 

Brenda Shaughnessy5) Brenda Shaughnessy
Technically, the No. 5 spot on this list should be a six-way tie, but that would be rather much to condense into one paragraph. So I made an editorial decision and went with my favorite writer of the bunch. I first encountered Shaughnessy’s verse in Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon, 2012), which draws from Tarot cards and cosmic space for its sprawling depictions of motherhood. Her first collection, Interior with Sudden Joy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), on the other hand, leans heavily on a choppy but still musical prose rhythm for its pieces. But it was her most recent collection, So Much Synth (Copper Canyon, 2016) that made her a contemporary giant in my heart. Two poems in particular stand out: “A Mix Tape: ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’,” which painstakingly details the process of making a mix tape for a crush, and “Is There Something I Should Know?” an epic and absolutely piercing reflection on early adolescence.

 

Andrew Hudgins4) Andrew Hudgins
At its worst, formal poetry can read as stiff and needlessly antiquated. At its best, well, you get someone like Andrew Hudgins. I first encountered Hudgins’ poetry through his verse autobiography The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood (Mariner, 1994), which to this day is still my favorite high-concept collection of poems. Its make great use of received forms to convey a child’s moment-to-moment moods, for example, the boredom-inducing “Gospel Villanelle.” But Hudgins also knows that the creaking rhythms of formal poetry have the power to unsettle. His first collection, Saints and Strangers (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) contains the blank verse piece “Air View of an Industrial Scene,” which ends with the dire line, “We’re watchers. But if we had bombs we’d drop them.” Meanwhile Ecstatic in the Poison (Overlook, 2003) begins with “In,” a common-measure ballad about kids playing in the clouds of pesticide trucks. No matter the form or the subject, Hudgins’ work is sure to prick at your nerves.

 

Shakespeare3) William Shakespeare
If this list were based on my lifetime reading habits, the Bard would take first place, and it wouldn’t be all that close. Both for classes and for pleasure, I always find myself going back to Shakespeare, and—no surprise here—he keeps getting better and better. I recently re-read Richard II, for example, and found the title character’s eloquence even more pointed and haunting than I’d remembered it. (Seriously, the “hollow crown” speech is my favorite bit from Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre.) The past few years, I’ve aimed to fill in my personal gaps in the Shakespeare canon, so I’ve read a couple of clunkers like Two Gentleman of Verona and Henry VIII. But I’ve also read such hidden gems as Troilus and Cressida, which is so cynical and war-weary you’d think it was the product of the World War I poets. You obviously don’t need me to tell you to read your Shakespeare, but for real: read your Shakespeare.

 

Larry Levis2) Larry Levis
When I first started taking creative writing classes in undergrad, I quickly realized something: my knowledge of poetry ended at around 1900. In a panic, I dove into the library stacks to fix that, and one poet in particular captivated me: Larry Levis. From the tightly controlled similes found in Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), to the sweeping, digressive reflections that make up The Widening Spell of the Leaves (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), to the stark confrontations with mortality that mark his posthumous collections: Levis’s work is always compelling. While, if I’m honest, my own writing most resembles that of Hudgins’, Levis is the writer here I most wish I could emulate, but simply lack the skill to do so. Who else could take the phrase, “Death blows his little fucking trumpet,” and make it work in not one but two completely different poems?

 

Ursula K. Le Guin1) Ursula K. Le Guin
Where do I even begin / with Ursula K. Le Guin? Perhaps with the masterful world-building found in her science fiction novels. Perhaps with the introspective tone that characterizes the Earthsea Cycle books. Perhaps with the fact that her mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore series is literally the only series of books I have ever read in its entirety. Perhaps with her poetry, or her advice on the craft of writing. Not only do I keep going back to Le Guin, I keep going back to her in different genres and contexts. I’ve never read Shakespeare’s narrative poetry, or Levis’s short fiction, but Le Guin? Hell, I’d read a history of sandwich toothpicks if she were the one writing it. For some representative books, I’d check out The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace, 1969), The Tombs of Atuan (Atheneum, 1971, second Earthsea Cycle book), and Voices (Harcourt, 2007, second Annals of the Western Shore book). But start wherever you’d like. You’re in for a treat.

So there’s my Top 5. Does your list have any overlap with mine? Are there any authors here you’ve not read before but would like to check out? Let me know in the comments.