Bill James writes an interesting but extremely flawed article about why we’re so good at developing baseball players, but so lousy at developing writers in Slate. Since the piece is called “Shakespeare and Verlander,” and our site is called Pitchers & Poets, I feel obligated to respond. I’ll focus on this quotation:
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. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.
1. It takes exactly one writer to create a great novel, poem, story, play, essay. It takes at least 18 baseball players to play a single baseball game. The demand is different because it requires more baseball players to be entertained than it requires writers.
2. It takes about three hours to watch a baseball game. It takes a dozen to read a novel.
3. Bill James says that if we did the same things to develop and appreciate writers and baseball players, a Shakespeare or Dickens or at least a Graham Greene would emerge from every mid-sized to small American city every decade or two. I think he fails to realize that a fair amount of people consider Graham Greene the greatest novelist of the 20th century. I’m about to finish “The Heart of the Matter.” If the entire world produced a Graham Greene every ten or fifteen years, I think we’d be in good shape. This is a guess, but as it stands now, Topeka probably does produce a crappy but published novelist or two — think the Alex Cora of novelists — every ten or fifteen years.
I think James also fails to realize — or at least fails to note — that there’s a massive inherent difference between writing novels and playing professional baseball. He’s right that they both require a great deal of natural ability and an even greater amount of practice. An old poetry professor of mine would always say that writing is both an art and a craft. Baseball is at best a craft with stunning aesthetic appeal. As much as we like to expound on this blog and assign literary meaning to ballplayers and ballgames, pitching is not art in the same sense that writing a novel is art. It’s more like chess. Pitchers don’t create new universes when they step out on the mound.
I’ll use Philip Roth. When his autobiographical character Alexander Portnoy dreams of being a centerfielder: “oh to be a centerfielder, a center fielder and nothing more,” he’s dreaming about the simplicity of playing center field — the physicality, the freedom, the distance from all of the insecurities and emotional machinations of the novelist. This isn’t to say that playing center fielder is a less worthy activity, it’s just not the same as writing literature.
4. His argument that Topeka is the size of Shakespeare’s London and therefore should be producing the same quality and quantity of literary output is absurd because a.) writers don’t flock to Topeka as a cultural capital. b.) Topeka has to compete with New York and LA and even Wichita when it comes to producing writers while London was the largest, most important city around. c.) There’s a very good poet named Eric McHenry from Topeka. He writes about it a fair amount. Also, as my friend Steve just pointed out, Gwendolyn Brooks was from Topeka
I’ll stop here. I’ve come to really appreciate Bill James more in the last year. He’s a brilliant thinker and brilliant writer. But this is the kind of pop-science crap that Malcom Gladwell would be reamed for if it appeared under his name. The arguments aren’t fleshed out. If you want to say that we should be valuing our writers more as a society, that’s one thing. (And James does make some good points about the dwindling demand for modern classics because the cannon isn’t really getting smaller.) But to say that Topeka should be producing a Dickens every decade because it produces a major league ballplayer? That’s just lazy.
(Also: Long Live Unofficial Royals Week!)