Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Of writers and athletes

I am an unabashed fan of Bill James, and so it was a great pleasure today to have my brilliant poet friend Jaime pass along this excerpted essay of his from Slate, entitled "Shakespeare and Verlander."  It is about, to be quite blunt, how come our culture can produce the finest athletes in any sport and yet no such talented writers to approach the likes of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

James also wrote one of my favorite essays of all time, based around the idea that as a native Kansan he was sick and tired of the negatively-connoted Midwest "dust bowl" idea being played up in relation to the allure of the city (particularly New York). He themed it around the black and white misery of Dorothy's Kansas in the Wizard of Oz movie compared to gloriousness of Oz, writing that there was just as much wonder and happiness and triumph to be found in the small towns of Kansas and Nebraska as there was in New York City.

These two theses are related, I think...

It is often mentioned that for a tiny nation, Ireland has produced so many of the greatest writers and poets, and I think this is related, too.

Really, great talent/skill is where 1) you look for it, 2) where it is cultivated/appreciated.  James gets right into the thick of this in his essay.

I think there are simply sensational writers being produced right now, as there always have been -- but they need light shed upon them. Unfortunately, light comes their way only if they stumble onto it serendipitously (or work their hearts out to be discovered, perhaps) or if they're friends with someone, who is already gaining the light of attention. That latter reason is why one hears of great writing friendships/groups; why the music scene is always filled with singer-songwriters/musicians collaborating. You work with someone else great, it makes you greater... or it at least puts you in their company so someone with resources will take a chance on you.

Here's perhaps the most important reason, though:  I think we as a culture seek to discover/cultivate great athletes because they make a great deal of money for many people other than them, whether in clothing/merchandising or sports agencies or media networks, etc. etc. etc. During Shakespeare's day, a great playwright (or even just a good one) could bring fame to an awful lot of people. In contemporary culture, who do you think is going to make the most people the most amount of money, a topflight baseball player or a novelist? If it's the novelist, that novel better be able to be turned into a smash movie with plenty of sequels in store.

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