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Body Language: Writers on Sport, the second book in the Graywolf Forum Series, gathers thirteen contemporary creative writers who offer personal reflections on our public obsession: from the pool hustler to the closet baseball fan; from late-night rodeo on cable TV to tennis games on the weathered fields of Illinois; from the aging basketball player to the anxious young girl determining whether to strike out the boy who is her friend. Through these individual narratives we begin to recognize the universal themes that galvanize both sport and literature: conflict and sacrifice, ritual and passion, humiliation and heroism.
James A. McPherson
David Foster Wallace
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About the Author
Gerald Early (editor) is the author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prize Fighting, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
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Body LanguageWriters on Sport
By Gerald Early
Graywolf PressCopyright © 1998 Graywolf Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom the "Introduction" by Gerald Early:
Indeed, we might take writing about sports in this country for granted because there is so much of it. A mountain of books comes out each year about sports, ranging from ghostwritten autobiographies by athletes to trite advice books by famous coaches; from a variety of books by fans-from reference to anecdotal-to dozens of books by journalists-from biographies, to histories, to "contemporary issues" such as sports financing. Even academics have gotten into the act (have been for a while, actually), with, for instance, a new academic biography about Babe Didrikson (appropriately lesbian feminist in denouncing male hegemony) and a new academic examination of race and sports (appropriately liberal in denouncing white hegemony).
Of course, virtually every daily newspaper in America has a sports section and a staff of sportswriters. So, there is endless reporting about, commentary on, analysis of sports on all levels in the United States. We are constantly informed about the boys and girls who perform sports, and the men and women who either perform them or who teach them. News about sports can be easily ignored but not so easily evaded. But so much of this journalism is disposable, which has led many of us to think in two mistaken ways: that sports are such tawdry spectacles that they are worthy only of disposable commentary and that sports themselves are disposable because they are trivial human activities. The first thought misses the very vital point that day-to-day events in high-performance sports competitions are, indeed, news, to be gathered and presented in a highly professional way, in the same way that other aspects of popular culture such as film, music, and theater are. The writing itself may be disposable, a reflection of our disposable popular culture, but there is, ironically, an act of preservation in making something newsworthy that means, in effect, we have made something a part of our history, a reference point, a defining instance, something that must be returned to by future generations if they are to understand us and themselves. With the exception of our politics, nothing comes as close to being recorded almost completely as an epic narrative in our news as our sports. The second thought confuses the content of sports performance with its meaning. The goal of any particular game or even of any particular sports season is trivial, but the fact that it is being played and being supported by a huge corporate and technological apparatus is not. Teams and individuals may be beaten, but the kingdom of sports is unstoppable.
On the other hand, there have been several first-rate writers who have written brilliantly about sports: Joyce Carol Oates, C. L. R. James, and Stephen Jay Gould, to name the most prominent. There have been very good sports journalists, too, from Grantland Rice to A. J. Leibling, from Robert Lipsyte to Ralph Wiley. Yet it is surprising how few of our very best writers have written at all about sports. Perhaps many feel that one must be a fan, an aficionado, in order to write about sports. But one hardly has to be a fan of any other segment of popular culture-film, music, television-to write about it, to criticize it, to wonder about it as a human activity. And sports have penetrated our lives in deep and complex ways, certainly as richly complex as film or popular music-hardly any one of us can claim we have not been touched by sports at all, even casually. And certainly by fewer than six degrees of separation we are all related to an athlete or a wanna-be athlete. This interaction between the casual observer or participant and sports need to be explored more by good writers who are not necessarily fans of athletics. That is the idea behind this collection: I asked several very good writers if they could write personal essays about an encounter with a sport and what that encounter meant. I purposefully sought writers, in most instances, who had not written about sports at all or had written only very little about them. I went out of my way to choose writers who were not sports fans or who felt ambivalent about sports, or, if they felt a passion for sports, could detach themselves from it. The result is not simply a collection of well-written essays but a collection of some importance, of some moment, about sports as an ironical cultural expression of loss through gain or victory through defeat.
Sports, finally, are about the fear of a world of chaos. Sports are about our hope for our order of things and, paradoxically, our realization that our hope will be dashed. This is why, ultimately, sports are such powerful attractions. What attracts us is the contradiction of trying to find a sense of permanence in such an ephemeral, contrived, minor expression of the human will. Thus, buried in the activity of play itself is innocence and experience, triumph and tragedy. Think of our current fitness craze in this country, actually dating back to the early days of vegetarianism and "physical culture" in the antebellum nineteenth century. What does this craze reflect but our fear of aging and death and our innocent hope that, if we train like athletes, cling to their habits, we can retain our youth, our health, our bodies against the relentlessly encroaching chaos of our unstoppable decline and unbeing. O, that we should believe that our bodies are made in the image of God and that we must be trapped by these flimsy, bedeviling devices, and that we should be conscious of our entrapment! The body is the last frontier. Perhaps the body has been, in truth, the only frontier, and our history has been merely the projection of the various insecurities that we feel about our bodies, about our physical presence. If this is so, sports may be the greatest religious experience, the most refined and profound encounter we can ever hope to have with the reality and the unreality of ourselves. This collection shows the intensity of and affection for sports and play that lie in our very ordinary, commonplace, sometimes amusing, sometimes troubling encounters with them. Perhaps Gregory Corso expressed the overall sentiment of these essays best in a line from his poem, "Dream of a Baseball Star": "God! throw thy merciful pitch!"
Excerpted from Body Language by Gerald Early Copyright © 1998 by Graywolf Press. Excerpted by permission.
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