Thursday, March 31, 2011

Developing Genius

Interesting post over at Pitchers and Poets yesterday. (Any baseball fan interested in more than the same old bullshit would do well to check P&P out regularly.) Eric Nusbaum took sabremetrician and writer Bill James to task over an article James wrote for Slate Magazine, lamenting how we as a nation don’t invest the same effort to develop writers as we do to find baseball players.

Nusbaum’s right; James’s article is “interesting but extremely flawed.” I’ll not rehash each writer’s points here; they speak more eloquently for themselves than I could. I will attempt to add a couple of argument stones to Nusbaum’s side of the scale.

Before I begin, note that I have been a Bill James devotee since I first saw a Baseball Abstract in 1982. Aside from being the father of modern baseball statistical analysis, he’s a wonderful and entertaining writer, with a keen intelligence not limited to baseball. Several of my life attitudes have been adopted from things Bill James wrote, and I’m better off because of it. (Example: he once took “baseball men” to task for dwelling on what a player couldn’t do, instead of capitalizing on what he did well. Good advice when dealing with anybody.)

James drops the ball uncharacteristically in several ways in this article. Nusbaum catches most; I have a couple more. Wondering why Topeka can produce a major league player every so often, but never a Shakespeare, even though it’s about the size of Shakespeare’s London, misses the point completely. If using Shakespeare (or Dickens) as an example, the comparison isn’t with producing a utility infielder, or even a player who held down a regular position for several years. The comparison there is with Willie Mays or Ted Williams. Few cities of any size have produced players of their accomplishment. If Topeka has, please point him out.

James also errs in his locations. Shakespeare wasn’t from London; he was born and grew up in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Dickens moved to London when he was three, but another James example, Graham Greene, grew up in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. They moved to London when they were already developing as writers. The analogy to Topeka would better be served to cite players who played minor league ball in Topeka, of which I’ll bet there are several well known names.

My arguments here are a hodge-podge, in part because so were James’s. So it goes. I suspect editorial and time constraints may have prevented his normal level of research. His point is still well taken: we don’t produce writers in anything like the quantities we crank out ballplayers.

Well, duh.

We never will. No one ever will, no matter how hard we might try. First, there’s no return on investment for writers. Scout the right ballplayer and you stand to make millions of dollars. The number of writers who can make a publisher comparatively rich can be counted on your digits. Baseball teams own the rights to their players’ work for six years after the reach the show; writers can change publishers with their underwear if they choose. No publisher is going to invest the money and effort to develop a writer who might give him one book, then leave.

Another key element is that baseball players—any athletes—are easier to spot. Watch twelve-year-old kids walk down the street. You can tell with some certainly which are the better athletes. Put a bat in their hands and it gets even easier. Choosing talent at the highest level is hard, but weeding out the chaff at the beginning of the pipeline is relatively easy.

Now take those same twelve-year-olds and tell me which one can write. What does a writer look like? How does he act? You can’t even tell by how he speaks. (People like to make fun of athletes, but I’ve heard some entertainingly inarticulate writers.) You just can’t tell with writers until you read what they’ve written, and even then you ought to read quite a bit before you predict someone to be a guaranteed success.
Comparing writers to athletes is a pointless exercise, not unlike saying Topeka has a population similar to Port St. Lucie FL, so why don’t they have spring training in Kansas, too? That’s comparing sunflowers and oranges.

The truth is, we have about as many writers—and ballplayers—as we need, or there would be more of them. Lord knows I’m not an ardent capitalist, but if we as a people wanted more writers, there would be more. We’d buy enough books for more of them to make a living at it. We don’t. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, good or bad.  It is what is is, and inventing convoluted comparisons to show how we are lacking because we don’t create more of them is like complaining about the uneven distribution of sunlight throughout the year. I don’t like it, either, but it’s  not changing anytime soon, and we may not like it when it does.


Charlieopera said...

I’m not so sure James isn’t closer to accurate here, but that goes to my greater good theory (which at conservative and libertarian blogs gets me in a whole lot of arguments). What I see working against James’ argument is human nature. To wit; the distractions from the literary world today for kids growing up in Topeka or anywhere else are pretty daunting. It is much easier today to write a term paper (3/4’s stolen from Wikipedia) than it is to actually read the work, analyze it and then write away ... and that’s when schools even bother to care (most won’t site the kid for plagiarism and are happy to have a submission). We have an unusual breakdown in the masses of education in general (undeniable in these United States today, especially for what were middle class families and certainly for the poverty class). Add to that formula the fact that both parents are (when they can or there are both parents in a given household) usually working and don’t have the time to further educate little Johnny and Joan. And then there are the tools of the trade and rewards for doing the work usually required to develop writers. Even if they are blessed with talent from above or below, if they don’t have access to the various necessary tools of the trade, who’s gonna know they have talent? I think James’s mistake is his assumption something can be done about it. Really? We’re going to re-culture a society that is not only comfortable watching Jersey Housewives, it is comfortable watching the endless spinoffs of similar fiascos (that now include Swamp Men, Ice Truck drivers, Jersey Shore, etc.).

Still, I don’t think James is far off the mark as regards what “could be”. Who knows how many Shakespeare’s (although that is shooting for the heights) are out there? I suspect far more than we can imagine for the simple fact that writers cannot be pigeonholed by look, demeanor, athleticism, penis size/vagina capacity, etc.

If there ever really were a level playing field, there just might be a few more Shakespeares than what we currently have watching free porn, playing Halo or sniffing glue (I know that dates me, but I have no other reference). But, so long as we are a society hell bent on the prizes of capitalism, you better believe the financial support necessary to develop talent will opt for the guarantee of profit over the risk of something as nebulous as writing/writers.

My wife and I have these discussions/arguments/blowouts all the time. She says I’m too arrogant about where society is today. Me, a knuckleheaded former window cleaner/knockaround guy/word processor is too arrogant (said with pipe in hand). I cringe when I see the shit Hollywood sells (blockbuster special effects, sophomoric bullshit comedy and/or gore). Likewise, I cringe at what passes for theatre these days (fucking cartoons on Broadway). The wife says I’m an old so-and-so and she’s probably right (she loves all that shhhh-stuff). But even she won’t deny, education has been heading down the shitter for a long time already and we’re both glad we won’t be around to see how it finally ends. Lineup cards that pass for Pulitzer Prize winning literature, I suspect.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Reading is hard work. Watching a baseball game is easier. Playing your cell phone is easier still. Understanding the statistics involved elevates its worth, I think. I well remember my son pouring over this each year. But he also read books. And still does both. In fact, he reads more than he watches sports I'd guess.
I don't think sports gets in the way of writing or reading. I think it's more likely the cell phone and games.