Sport is central to American culture but there are surprisingly few great novels devoted to it. Chad Harbach, author of the bestselling novel, The Art of Fielding, picks his favourite 'novels with sporting themes.'
Let’s talk about your own novel before we get stuck into the five you’ve chosen. How long did it take you to write The Art of Fielding?
I began the book in 2000, when I was 24, so quite the long time ago. When I graduated from college I tried to write fiction in a serious way. I was pretty bad at it. Every day back then, when I came home from work I would sit at my desk and try to write for a few hours. I wrote a lot of stories, most of which were quite terrible. I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not sure how to characterise their badness. I was certainly a more naive and immature writer then.
And is it learning the craft or maturing as an individual that makes a good writer?
I think it’s 50-50. For me it was certainly both. There’s lots and lots to learn in terms of craft – whatever that means for a particular person’s manner of writing. When I began The Art of Fielding, I had the notion for a novel around the idea of a very talented baseball player who goes through a kind of psychosomatic crisis and loses the ability to throw the ball. That’s a situation taken from real baseball – it has happened to some prominent professional players. I thought it would be excellent material for fiction, and very quickly I developed the world and characters of the book. But I had no sense of how to go about writing a novel. There was an endless amount to learn in terms of how to construct what seemed inevitably to be quite a long book.
What were some of those lessons?
It’s hard to say, because you never have to verbalise them when you learn them.
Until you’re interviewed …
Or until you try to teach a writing workshop. They can be quite intuitive lessons in a way. I think one of the hardest things, especially if you’re a young writer who is enamoured of classic writers with a different vernacular, is to learn how to write in a way that’s not completely opaque. You have a sense of writing as a very difficult thing to do and to read.
David Foster Wallace wrote a great essay called “The Nature of Fun,” in which he said writing only works if you’re having fun when you do it.
I can see the sense in that.
Why did you choose baseball as the spring board, to mix metaphors, for your plot?
I was sort of stuck with it because the initial germ of the novel came from baseball. But growing up in the Midwest, that was an environment where sports are very important. I grew up playing and following sports, and it was a centre of social life in my city. It’s what everyone did. I knew from the outset that I didn’t want The Art of Fielding to be entirely about sport. But I do think that sport is really central to American culture. There are not that many really great novels about sport, and I’m surprised by that, because it affords a lot of dramatic possibility and because it’s so descriptive of the culture. So it seems to me like natural fodder.
Starting on those few great novels with a sporting setting, your first pick is Bernard Malamud’s 1952 classic baseball novel The Natural.
I actually only read The Natural last summer, after my book came out. It is about a baseball player named Roy Hobbs. He’s a young phenom who gets knifed by a woman on a train and falls away from the game for many years, but comes back at the end of his career and makes it to the major league for one moment of potential triumph. It’s a very dark book, in fact. Roy Hobbs is a really one-dimensional figure. He’s not a thoughtful guy. He’s very ambitious, in a narrow, greedy American sort of way. He only cares about the game.
The plot runs parallel to the myth of the Fisher King. The team is the New York Knights, the manager is called Pop Fisher, they’re seeking the National League pennant, and there’s this Excalibur-like bat called Wonderboy. It almost reads like an allegory.
Malamud does it very well. On the one hand it’s a very gritty book, and on the other hand it has deep mythic undertones. He obviously sees baseball within America as a mythic tradition. And if you know about the history of professional baseball, he takes a lot of baseball anecdotes from the turn of the century and weaves them into the book. So there’s the sense in the book that the history of baseball is a source of American mythos.
In the same way, perhaps, that the “Art of Fielding” book-within-a-book that gives your novel its name has a mythical, Sun-Tzu feel to it?
You’re right, the way that it’s written is quite Eastern – so not an American mythos but the same idea of a spiritual underpinning to the game, whether you’re a practitioner or a fan.
Let’s move onto David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest. This novel is about tennis, substance abuse, Quebec separatism and a whole lot more.
Infinite Jest is 1100 pages long, set in the near future and difficult to encapsulate. There are two central protagonists. One is Hal Incandenza, a 17-year old top level tennis player at Enfield Tennis Academy outside of Boston. The other is called Don Gately, who is a recovering alcoholic and counselor at a halfway house. The book is all about addiction in a sense.
How does addiction come into play in sport?
Well, in the simplest way a lot of sports players are addicted to various drugs. But I also think Wallace is interested in the addiction to success for its own sake. For these junior tennis players, you’re either climbing the pyramid or you’re getting kicked down and off it. There’s what he describes as the addiction to success in other people’s eyes. Addiction to your own ambition, as opposed to deriving any real benefit from playing sport.
As Henry Skrimshander, the key baseball player in your novel, was too perhaps?
If Henry had an addiction, it was to perfection – which is also a question of perception, of not making mistakes in front of others and presenting oneself as perfect. On the baseball diamond he was able to do that quite easily, but of course to really succeed you have to be able to make mistakes and to rebound from them, not to be broken or humiliated by them. He never really learnt how to do that, so when he starts to have some troubles he is not able to cope with them.
Do you think that David Foster Wallace will still be regarded as an important author of our times in 50 years?
I wrote about David Foster Wallace in my magazine n+1for our very first issue in 2004. I said in that piece that I think Infinite Jest is the major American novel of the past 25 years. Nine years later I still feel that way. I think it’s the book on which his reputation will rest, and I think people are going to read it for a long time. You never know how something is going to be seen in 50 years, and Infinite Jest is an incredibly long and in some ways difficult book, so it does present some barriers to continued popularity. But I do think he contributes something extremely valuable.
Was he doing something new and original in your opinion – pushing contemporary literature in a fresh direction?
I think historically you could see Wallace as the first writer to take the postmodern tradition – the main value of which was in its critical distance and impersonality, in the way that it exposed its own artifice – and merge it back into the mainstream. He took all of the tricks of postmodernism, and combined them into what in some ways is a very classic novel of characters and accomplishment. I think that is his real legacy.
He has written quite a lot about tennis over the years.
He’s written wonderful essays about tennis. There’s one about Michael Joyce, who at the time was the 100th ranked tennis player in the world, in which he captures the psychology of the game and the devotion required to do well in it. Wallace describes tennis as real psychological warfare, and I think that’s true. And among team sports, I think that baseball is the analogue. Baseball is a very lonely team sport – with one-on-one confrontations between batter and pitcher, and the loneliness of each fielder in their own space. To me, it’s like taking the spotlight anxiety of the tennis player and enacting that within a team game.
Next up is End Zone by Don DeLillo.
I always like to give End Zone some props, because I don’t think it’s widely read or known about. It’s his second novel, from 1972, and one of my favourite books. It’s also DeLillo’s funniest book by far. It’s a very short book about a college [American] football team in West Texas, told by a group of misfits and exiles who come together in the middle of nowhere. The novel tracks them through a winning football season.
The protagonist of the book has a peverse academic interest in nuclear holocaust. He’s constantly reading books about what would happen in a nuclear disaster. So the question in the book is in what ways football is like or unlike warfare. Does football create or replace a violent impulse? Though he does say explicitly in the book that sport isn’t a replacement for warfare. We don’t need one – we have the real thing.
Do you think violence and sport can be two sides of the same coin?
Well, we are animals after all and we need to find ways to sublimate some of our impulses. I think football is one way in which that happens. But on a psychological level it’s a complicated question whether the better you get at being violent, the more frequently you may wish to execute your excellence. Certainly one of the reasons why football exists is that we have violent impulses, but it’s not clear whether football tames or encourages those impulses.
You’ve chosen two books by DeLillo – the second is Underworld.
This is DeLillo’s big, thick novel which ranges over several decades of American history. It’s a book about waste, about trash, about what society sweeps under the rug. But it begins with a long overture set in perhaps the most famous professional baseball game of all time – “The Shot Heard Round The World,” the famous home run hit by Bobby Thomson in 1951. It’s an incredibly virtuosic piece of writing, that section. DeLillo becomes the Emersonian eyeball that is able to circulate not only through the game but through all the various spectators, and he paints a vivid picture of the scene in a beautiful, sinuous sort of way.
Don DeLillo understands sport better than most as a very American enactment of the religious impulse. He understands sport as an American ritual and religion, with moments of collective catharsis or hysteria. In another of his books, Mao II, there’s an amazing scene at the beginning in which a big and powerful cult has a mass marriage ceremony at Yankee stadium. He sees sport as a locus of American belief in a way that seems to me very true.
Finally, tell us about The Tennis Handsome. This is a bit of a curveball selection.
It’s a crazy-ass book. I don’t even know how to describe it. Every sentence is mad and perfect in its own particular way, so the plot as it unfolds is hard to explain. It’s just an indescribably weird, fucked-up book.
There’s rape by walrus, murder by crossbow and a tennis tournament at gunpoint.
I don’t remember the walrus rape. But I believe it was there. The tennis handsome, the protagonist, is an ageing and beleagured guy who was great at tennis. The book follows him and his erstwhile coach, and their romantic relationships over a long period of time. It also contains some great descriptions of the odd beauties of tennis.
What is or was your own relationship to sport?
I was enormously competitive when I was younger, and sport was a very important outlet for that. You find that the profound need to win begins to diminish at a certain point in your life. As you enter your thirties and as your thirties wear on, you don’t have that extreme need to destroy everyone. Now I enjoy more the camaraderie and the sheer physical pleasure of sport, but I don’t channel my anxieties into it as I probably did when I was younger.
Did you approach writing in the same competitive, success-driven way?
It’s hard to say. The nice thing about sport is you’re going to win or lose, it’s going to be decided one way or another. The difficult thing about writing a novel, especially a novel that takes as long as mine did, is having to suspend your desire for a sense of accomplishment, or for what the outcome will be, almost forever. In sport you’re given immediate feedback from your environment, but in writing you have to put that on hold for years.
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What else is analagous or not between the two?
Writing isn’t competitive. I don’t think you can be a writer simply because you’re invested in the outcome. For me, what’s wonderful about writing is that it is incredibly difficult – so when you have a small success, it’s really gratifying. If a day at your desk goes very well, or if you write a chapter and get it right, that’s an immensely good feeling. It’s you against the page in a way – an entirely private, solitary competition.
How about the sports psychology thing about relaxing into the shot, not thinking too hard about it. Does that apply to writing too?
Oh, absolutely. Certainly in The Art of Fielding, when I was reflecting about Henry and his troubles with over-thinking and paralysis after his crisis of confidence, more so than thinking about sport I was thinking about my own efforts to write the novel.
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