Bill James, Sigh

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!)

10 Responses to “Bill James, Sigh”

  • While I agree with your general thesis – I think when James says “produces,” he means “born in,” rather than “lives in at 25 and makes a name for himself there.”

  • You make a fair point, but isn’t “live in at 25 and make a name for himself there” pretty much what Shakespeare did?

  • I think James’ editors allowed him to bury some really good points–we’re really good at raising athletes and should get better at raising writers, sports are advanced in some aspects of racial politics–in some weird divergences. 5,000 major league teams? I guess, Bill. Then maybe I’d have a shot.

  • I read the James piece. I think Ted is right in his assessment, but I’ argue that James didn’t choose his writer example well. A more apt analogy might be that if Topeka can produce a major league player every ten years or so, it should be able to produce a writer capable of earning a good living from writing alone about as often. Even that is flawed, as there are only 750 major league players at any given time (not counting those on the DL), and the potential number of writers earning a living has no mandated bound. (Though we know, in practice, the number is relatively low.)

    I’ve read James since the 1982 Abstract; his writing and opinions routinely fascinate me, and some have crept into how I approach life. (Example: we spend too much time focusing on what people can’t so, instead of focusing on what they can do well.) I think this time he overreached a little, may have had some of his argument diluted by space and time restraints.

  • The thesis of the article also assumes something quantifiable in writing talent which I don’t think is necessarily there. It’s so difficult to objectively judge writing ability; if Faulkner is Ted Williams and Nick Hornby is Brian Roberts, then what is Diana Gabaldon or Dean Koontz? Koontz sells a LOT of books, even if they’re terrible. The point is, you can’t simply graph writers onto some kind of Major League-minor league-semi-pro-slo-pitch continuum. Judging writing is far more subjective than judging baseball players.

    Also, how do account for different genres? How many potentially great novelists become playwrights, script doctors or journalists to pay the bills? I guess there are ballplayers who end up in the NBA or track and field, but I just don’t think it’s the same thing. It’s a very clumsy analogy.

  • Hey, a lot of the metrics people used to use for judging baseball players have been overturned, and popularity doesn’t necessarily equate with talent measured on any scale,
    while the correlations to salary aren’t perfect either…

  • First, produces means “develops as.” People generally consider an athlete to come from where they went to high school, because that is where their talent blossomed. “Lived in when they were twenty-five and made a name for themselves there,” totally counts.
    Second, baseball may not create new universes, but neither does photography. Their is an artistic element in baseball; it provokes the same emotions, it’s no wonder that baseball translates onto film so well.
    Third, I dont know how I feel about publishers funding writing competitions and “rewarding potential.” Remember how important the bottom line is for all of these people and remember what material success has down for the great art.

  • GAH!!! The Bill James article is infuriating for so many reasons. Are we great at producing athletes? Of course we are. But to say that we don’t develop great writers or philosophers or artists or whatever in our society is total and utter hogwash. We produce a whole lot of great thinkers, and, thanks to 1) increased access to great ideas of both the past and present, 2) more sophisticated and far-reaching networks, and 3) improved social justice I would guess that we’re producing just as many if not more great thinkers per capita as Shakespeare’s London.

    Now, it is certainly true that we don’t value great thinkers commercially as much as we do athletes, thanks to the nature of consumption of their respective products, but one need only spend a few hours in a university library somewhere to see that there’s a whole hell of a lot of darn good writing going on in the world (and, hey, save the gas and spend some time surfing the interwebs, since a lot of darn good writing is happening there, as well; people are writing and reading more now than at any time in history).

    Is that “great” writing? Well, what does “great” even mean? Doesn’t a big part of Shakespeare’s greatness come from the hundreds of years of cultural and academic narrative we’ve built around his work? I’m not arguing against it’s inherent quality, but as silly as that would be, it’s equally silly to claim that no one writing today is as good as Shakespeare, and indeed that perhaps there might be dozens or hundreds of writers today as good as Shakespeare. The reality is, we don’t have the lens of history through which to look at the present.

    What’s more, our whole cultural paradigm has shifted. No longer is there a single Canon of great works that everyone reads, certainly not among works produced in the last half-century. Instead, there are sub-cultures and sub-canons. Whereas the work of producing great literature, art, and philosophy was once concentrated in the hands of a very few masters, now that same work is distributed across vast networks of vaguely interconnected domains.

    In summary, it’s silly to ignore all of the vast cultural differences between Shakespearean London and modern Topeka (or anywhere else). I’m as much a fan of the notion of something eternal in human experience as anyone, but you can’t just go there without acknowledging that the way in which times have changed has had a profound impact on the process of writing, the organization of society, and our notions of greatness.

  • I think one of the comments on the Slate piece hit home – we really just have a qualitative media focus on top level athletes, not top level writers. Lots of quasi-pros loiter about the d-leagues, just as lots of lower level authors self-publish on amazon and barnes and noble. Take a glance at good reads and you’ll see the stats just may be comparable!

  • Hey, thanks for the kind words! It’s funny that James singled out Topeka, since the city seems to produce writers at a rate totally incommensurate with its size. Ben Lerner, Ed Skoog, Kevin Young and I are all from Topeka — just to name poets in their 30s with work in Slate’s own archive. Lerner, Skoog, the poet Nick Twemlow and Stewart Bailey (longtime writer/executive producer for The Daily Show) all grew up within two or three blocks of one another. Bill James himself is from Holton, just north of Topeka. What is this place, London?

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