When I was 10, my family moved to California for a year, and I discovered baseball. My Dad bought me two anthologies of baseball writing, which I read to pieces. I still have the books, pages stained with the crumbs of early 1980s food. In one there was a profile of Ted Williams, the famous Boston Red Sox player, written by someone called John Updike. I’d never heard of Updike, but the article stayed with me. It was better than any sports writing I ever encountered growing up in Europe. Good European writers seldom bothered with sport back then.
That has changed. On Wednesday, at the Hospital Club in London, the William Hill prize for sports book of the year will be awarded for the 25th time. Ever since rowing coach Dan Topolski won the first award in 1989 for True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny, sporting literature has blossomed in Britain and, later, around Europe.
American writers have always taken sports seriously. Ernest Hemingway, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac all worked as sports journalists. Hemingway once got $30,000 from Sports Illustrated for a 2,000-word piece on bullfighting. Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Don DeLillo set novels in sport. Richard Ford actually wrote a novel called The Sportswriter.
Often in American literature, the athlete incarnated the “American dream”. He was the kid who came from nowhere to great fame, but who always risked deflating and returning to nowhere. That is why, when the American dream went out of fashion after the second world war, American literature became populated by deflated former star high school athletes: Brick Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, Arthur Miller’s Biff Loman and, much later, “Swede” Levov in Roth’s American Pastoral. The former boxers played by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront are of the same type. Once all-American heroes, they embody broken American dreams.
But in Europe a rigid divide had long separated “high” from “low” culture. Opera was high culture and sport was low – and therefore not worth serious contemplation by writers. Britons did write books on sport. In my little office in Paris, I have a sports library that is surely one of the best in Europe. It’s packed with hundreds of books assembled since the 1930s by my grandfather, my father and me.
Until the 1990s, though, few of these books aspired to much. Most were simple-minded sportsmen’s autobiographies, or breathless accounts of long-dead games, or lovely light prose (usually on cricket) by the likes of AG Macdonell. Only a very few writers produced “proletarian literature” set in sport – most notably, Alan Sillitoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1959) and David Storey’s novel This Sporting Life (1960), set in rugby league.
Historically, cricket was the game that British writers learned at public school. On a summer’s Saturday in London around 1900, you could have stood on various boundaries watching Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), AA Milne (of Winnie the Pooh), PG Wodehouse (of Jeeves), EW Hornung (of Raffles) and JM Barrie (of Peter Pan as well as of the Allahakbarries cricket club) playing for overlapping teams. The teatime repartee over cucumber sandwiches must have been decent. Decades later, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard played together on those same London fields.
Yet none of them wrote about cricket in a serious fashion. Neither did Samuel Beckett, a life-long cricket nut who played two first-class matches for Dublin university. Philosopher AJ Ayer did write football match reports for The Observer in the 1950s, but he seems to have treated this as a vacation from thinking. His favourite opening line: “The match kicked off at 3.00pm prompt.”
Most of the best books about British sports before the 1990s were by foreigners. The Trinidadian CLR James showed in Beyond a Boundary (1963) that cricket could illuminate race and empire. Irish footballer Eamon Dunphy’s Only A Game? (1976) remains probably the best player’s account of English football. A Handful of Summers (1978), by South African tennis player Gordon Forbes, is an undying memoir of youth. (Sports literature is, overridingly, a male genre.)
It took a New Zealander to push British sporting literature into maturity. In 1985 John Gaustad insanely opened a sports bookshop on Caxton Walk, off London’s Charing Cross Road. “I started out the only employee,” he once told me, “a man with a dream.” Strangely, Sportspages worked. Soon Gaustad teamed up with betting shop company William Hill to create the book award, which for years was staged in his tiny shop, now closed. The literature of football, Britain’s favourite sport, took off.
Nick Hornby’s football fan’s memoir Fever Pitch, winner of the William Hill prize in 1992, is usually credited with pioneering the genre. However, Gaustad points to Pete Davies’ All Played Out (1990), which recounts England’s journey through that year’s World Cup. “Davies was John the Baptist to Hornby,” said Gaustad. “His book helped define what Sportspages was about: committed fans talking loudly and interestingly about the game they loved. It was like a voice nobody had ever heard.”
In 1991, when I went around London publishers touting my first book, which was about football’s meaning around the world, it was only thanks to Davies that the phrase “football book” was no longer considered an oxymoron. The copy of All Played Out in my library today is the one that a publisher gave me back then, trying to explain what he hoped I would do. Another brave publisher gave me a contract. In 1992 I took the boat-train to the continent with a typewriter in my rucksack.
Just then, Fever Pitch appeared. A completely original book, it examines the apparently unremarkable experience of being a football fan. It uses football to illuminate a man’s life, and is also a hilarious social history of Britain from the 1960s to the 1990s. In part, the book was inspired by hours of reading fanzines in Sportspages. “Publishers may have refused to accept that there was such a beast as the literate football fan,” Hornby wrote later, “but there were always hundreds of them in Caxton Walk, so I knew who I was writing for.”
Crucially, too, Hornby loved American literature. His first book, published just before Fever Pitch, was a collection of essays called Contemporary American Fiction. Hornby knew what good writers could do with sport. Specifically, he had read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a fictionalised memoir of a drunkard in and out of mental hospitals whose life gains meaning from following the New York Giants football team. In sports writing, we owe it all to American cultural imperialism.
Fever Pitch unleashed a flood of British books on football – by one estimate, more in the UK than in all other countries put together. Some writers, following Hornby, used football to examine their own lives. Others, like Alex Bellos’s Futebol, on Brazil, or David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, on Holland, used football to understand a country. Later writers treated football as a Proustian madeleine to revisit some bygone age, often Britain in the 1970s. (There is an entire literary subgenre devoted to Nottingham Forest’s great manager Brian Clough.)
The new football books were greeted with suspicion. Some critics thought highfalutin’ “writers” should stay out of what was traditionally a working man’s game. These critics said: “Football is 22 men in shorts running around kicking a piece of plastic. It’s not a fit subject for literature.”
That argument is nonsense. You could equally argue that writing is just tapping bits of plastic; that playing the piano is just hitting bits of ivory, and so on. Something is a fit subject for literature if it inspires good literature. Football has done that. Sometimes the books are even better than the football deserves.
Soon the new genre reached continental Europe. In 1994 two Dutchmen who had read My Favourite Year, a collection of writing on football edited by Hornby, started a literary football journal called Hard Gras. In 1997, in the bubble era of football literature, when publishers were throwing money at any football book as if it were a subprime mortgage, I launched a British imitation. It failed, but Jonathan Wilson’s The Blizzard has since made the idea work in Britain. Other literary soccer magazines thrive elsewhere: Offside in Sweden, Josimar in Norway, Panenka in Spain, Howler in the US, while Hard Gras has become the bestselling literary journal in Dutch history. Recently the genre even reached hoity-toity France. The other day a French writer visited my library to borrow some books. He’s now in Rio de Janeiro researching a book on Brazilian football.
This kind of in-depth sports writing has become more necessary as daily sports journalism has got harder. After the early 1990s, when satellite TV channels began showing endless sport, newspapers and websites expanded their sports coverage. Many men devour it. To quote Andrew Card, chief of staff of former US president George W Bush: “He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports page every day.” Noam Chomsky, the celebrated American political thinker, argues that any “serious media critique” needs to look at sport and soap operas: “These are the types of things which occupy most of the media – most of it isn’t shaping the news about El Salvador for politically articulate people, it’s diverting the general population from things that really matter.”
However, as sports clubs grew richer on the new TV money, they became more media-savvy. Now they control and limit sports journalism. Players get “media training”, press officers censor interviews and sports journalists are corralled into the manufactured pseudo-events that are press conferences. In the latest great American novel set in sport, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, reporters pester Norm Oglesby, fictional owner of the Dallas Cowboys football team, about his plans to move stadium:
“A few of the medias keep on about the stadium, but Norm ignores them. Billy begins to get a sense of the dynamic here, a power equation along the lines of the CEO of a giant corporation vis-à-vis the urinal puck he so thoughtfully studies as it’s drenched with his mighty personal stream. It is Norm’s job to maximize the value of the Cowboys brand, and it is the job of the medias to soak up every drop, dab and dribble of PR he sends their way.”
And soak it up we do. At the Euro 2012 football championship, for instance, England’s manager Roy Hodgson and captain Steven Gerrard gave a press conference in Donetsk, Ukraine. With the British media industry in crisis, several hundred of us journalists gathered at the edge of Europe to hear two men say effectively nothing for 30 minutes.
The next evening we wrote our match reports. These mattered back in the days when few fans ever saw the games. When a prewar radio announcer named Ronald Reagan used to sit in a radio booth in Iowa, pretending to be in Chicago calling Cubs baseball games (which he actually followed through telegraph reports), he was his listener’s one link to the action.
But nowadays people can see every game on TV. Match reports no longer serve much purpose. Deeper writing is required. And now, finally, we are getting it from the athletes. Cricketers – many of them upper-middle-class – have always written good memoirs. However, working-class footballers rarely did. Twenty years ago, a publisher told me he’d turned down an autobiography by David Platt, then England captain, because it would sell only 3,000 copies and be boring.
Suddenly good football memoirs are mushrooming. There’s an economic explanation. People in football today are so rich that they no longer need to issue ghostwritten fluff for money. They therefore only bother writing books if they have something to say. Sir Alex Ferguson, the recently retired Manchester United manager, who in 1999 wrote 250,000 words by hand for his first autobiography, has just published another. Dennis Bergkamp has produced a kind of artist’s memoir, a “non-autobiography” called Stillness and Speed. And Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s magnificent Swedish immigrant’s tale, which has sold more than 1m copies around Europe, is on the shortlist for Wednesday’s William Hill prize.
The William Hill judges are fallible. In 2000, Lance Armstrong won for his cycling memoir It’s Not About the Bike. When it later emerged that Armstrong’s career was all about the drugs, he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. However, so far he has kept his William Hill prize.
Certain other winners haven’t quite stacked up to Hornby either. But I’m grateful for the judges’ errors. In 1993 my typewriter and I made it back to London and, a year later, my book Football Against the Enemy was nominated for the prize. The FT was then forcing me to attend a terrible journalism course in the backwater town of Hastings, on a stipend of about £150 a week. I begged the teachers for a day off to attend the ceremony at Sportspages in London. Very reluctantly, they let me go. As the ceremony began, I told myself: “You won’t win, you won’t win.” I won. The prize was £3,500. It couldn’t have happened to a poorer man. I spent the afternoon in a nearby pub with Hornby and another of my heroes, sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney. Then I took the last train to Hastings, found my fellow students in the pub, put £40 behind the bar and for the first time in my life bought drinks all night.
The winner on Wednesday will receive £25,000. That implies that the sports-book genre has risen sevenfold in status in 20 years, which sounds about right.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
Simon Kuper’s favourites: 10 of the best
● Beyond A Boundary (1963) by CLR James
● Paper Lion: Confessions of a LastString Quarterback (1965) by George Plimpton
● A Fan’s Notes (1968) by Frederick Exley
● Only A Game? by Eamon Dunphy with Peter Ball (1976)
● A Handful of Summers (1978) by Gordon Forbes
● All Played Out: The Full Story of Italia ’90 (1990) by Pete Davies
● Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)
● Brilliant Orange (2000) by David Winner
● Moneyball (2003) by Michael Lewis
● Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin (2008)
William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award: The 2013 shortlist
● The Boys in the Boat: An Epic True-Life Journey to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin by Daniel James Brown(Macmillan)
● The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete by David Epstein (Yellow Jersey)
● Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld by Ed Hawkins (Bloomsbury)
● I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Lagercrantz and Ruth Urbom (Penguin)
● Doped: The Real Life Story of the 1960s Racehorse Doping Gang by Jamie Reid (Racing Post)
● Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh (Simon & Schuster)
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