To celebrate the publication of the 20th edition of The Best American Sports Writing, I sat down with series editor Glenn Stout. Dig our chat.
Bronx Banter: How many pieces do you read each year, and how do you find all the stuff?
Glenn Stout: I can’t answer this any more specifically than to say “many thousands.” I don’t waste time counting. But understand, a lot of what I read I only read until I say to myself “This is not going to make the book,” so I stop. Suffice to say that I read enough of every submission, and enough of every significant story in every publication I receive, that I don’t stay up nights worrying if I read enough. Almost without even thinking about it anymore, I read a couple hours a day. It’s like feeding the dogs or working out – part of the fabric of the day.
I find things by looking and by being easy to find myself and by trying to make it clear to every writer that he or she is encouraged to submit material. Several hundred magazines and newspapers are sent requests for submissions and/or complimentary subscriptions. I subscribe to a healthy number of publications myself, a few good friends, like yourself, and even readers, recommend stories to me, and I send out a mass e-mail request to a mailing list I’ve put together over the years. I also read some blogs and check some message boards to see if there are any stories people are talking about. But most importantly, I just keep my eyes open. A story like one by Pam Belluck in the New York Times a few years ago – “How to Catch Fish in Vermont,” wasn’t a submission, and didn’t appear in the sports section of the Times. I stumbled upon Belluck’s story while looking for something else. The same thing happened this year when I found Eric Nusbaum’s story “Death of Pitcher” from his blog, pitchersandpoets.com. I was looking for something for Fenway 1912, my book on the first season of Fenway Park which will come out next year, and I stumbled on his story. There are probably eight or ten stories each year that get sent to the Guest Editor that I “find” accidentally. But they are “on purpose accidental” because I leave myself open to finding them. I’ll steal a magazine from a doctor’s office if there is a story in it that might be good for the book.
BB: Has the process changed at all over the years?
GS: The biggest change is that 20 years ago all my browsing took place in hard copy. I worked at the Boston Public Library then and had access to where the past years’ magazines and newspapers were kept. I’d go in the occasional Saturday and spend the whole day reading. Now, with the internet, coupled with the fact I no longer have direct access to what, until recently, was one of the world’s greatest public libraries, means I spend much more time online. But I don’t think the flow rate of the word river has changed all that much.
BB: Are there certain kinds of stories that are more likely to make it? Magazine profiles, newspaper columns?
GS: I don’t think so, but other people do. I’ve gone back and checked and the stories I set aside each year for further reading break down about 60% – 40% between magazines and other long form formats and newspapers (which includes weeklies and the handful of Sunday supplements still published). Although these days, of course, with so many newspapers cutting space, cutting back, and/or closing, I’ve noticed a drop in submissions from newspapers and their writers, and there are clearly fewer “take-outs” being written. Since it is impossible to browse hundreds of daily newspapers, newspaper writing is probably more dependent on submissions than work from magazines that can send me subscriptions. And I have to say, newspapers and newspaper writers are, for some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, hesitant to make submissions. There are some major, major newspapers that have never responded to a request for material. I can’t consider what I don’t see. And even when papers do make submissions, there have been times we’ve picked a story that the writer submitted and the paper did not. What they submit is often very telling. One very well thought of sports editor at a major paper never sent me material from his staff – but submitted his own very pedestrian work every year.
I’ll admit that longer form pieces probably have a bit of an edge – extra space is a gift to a writer — but that’s also part of the media of putting a book together. Longer form stories hold together better in a book. Obviously, there are some kinds of stories that I personally don’t care for, but in every batch of material I send to the Guest Editor, I always include a few stories that I might not like at all, but understand that someone else might.
BB: There aren’t very many accounts of single games or events. Is that by design? Do you find that the art–and of necessity–of game recaps has been devalued with the rise of technology?
GS: Very few games stories and column – I find – provide the information needed to stand alone a year or more later when the book comes out. Often there just isn’t enough context in the story, and they often depend on a great deal of assumed knowledge. That may be understandable when the story was first written, but can no longer be assumed a year or more later. And some are just plain dated. This isn’t a contest for the writers, but a book for the readers, and if a story doesn’t give the reader enough, or is dated by changing events, it’s not going in the book no matter how well written it might be. And stylistically, few game stories or columns today are written with much real form – there is a lot of radio banter and one-liners masquerading as writing. I’m not sure that technology is the reason for that, but when considering game stories, I think that when the computer allowed writers the freedom to do constant updates and re-writes, and writers became accustomed to doing so, many stopped writing stories that actually told a story.
BB: Are there any stories that you selected but weren’t selected by the guest editor that stand out?
GS: There are always a couple each year that I wish the Guest Editor would have picked, but that has always been the case. In BASW of the Century I really wish we would have included a story by A.J. Leibling, for instance, and there are a few other writers I wish we would have included, but you have to put a back cover on the book at some point. Some GE’s have asked for my input, and when I feel really strongly about a story I might mention it, and I think on one or two occasions it has resulted in a story making the book that otherwise might not have. But can I pick out examples? That wouldn’t be fair to the writer. After I turn the submissions over to the GE, I always make my own picks and compare them with mine. Almost without fail we overlap about 60-75% of the time. That seems about right.
BB: Other than David Halberstam, who you’ve written about before, were there any relationships you had with guest editors that stand our as enjoyable or remarkable?
GS: Well, although David was the best, most have been enjoyable and all have tried to make a good book. Although a few GE’s have preferred to do everything by mail and e-mail, I’ve had some great conversations with the GE’s – and occasionally from writers who are appearing in the book, although I won’t critique anyone’s work, since I don’t think that’s appropriate. I get nice letters too… and few crazy ones. The mail is always an adventure.
BB: Do you ever hear from writers who are mad that they aren’t in the book?
GS: Kinda sorta indirectly, but not aggressively so. Precisely what makes the book is not really my decision anyway – the guest editor chooses and can always add any story not submitted by me. I’m a gatekeeper but there are other ways around the gate. A few writers have taken snipes at the book that I suspect are because they are not in it. Some of these writers have made it clear to me, privately, that they would like to be in the book. I understand that, and don’t hold it against them. I have had family members that have gotten mad at me. You have to be careful of daughters defending their dads.
BB: How do you keep up with all the material that is on the Internet? I know there have been a few blog posts that have qualified, though Internet writers like Bill Simmons or Rob Neyer have never been selected. Is there a built in prejudice against Internet-based writers, or do you see the quality of that writing as being less than because most bloggers don’t have editors (of course Neyer and Simmons do).
GS: You can’t. No one can, not even if you do it all day, every day. It’s as impossible as reading 300 daily newspapers a day. Now obviously, there are a handful of sites that are must reads, but the volume is overwhelming. Everybody has a blog – even me ( verbplow.blogspot.com ). In this climate, anybody writing online, or writing anywhere for that matter, who assumes that I must be reading them because of their name or their publisher or their profile or their website is mistaken. I might be, and I try to, but it cannot be done. The best way to get a story in the book is to make sure I see it, and the only foolproof way to do that is to send it to me in the mail.
There isn’t any prejudice against Internet writers, but I have say they have been far less aggressive making submissions than writers from other sources, as have online publications. You’ve got to print it out, and you’ve got to put it in the mail. I don’t accept submissions by e-mail, because some people would forward everything they write to me, and it would be overwhelming. Hell, some people do that now (and some by mail, too). You do what you can to be fair to everybody, but in this case it comes down to the mechanics of the process. It’s got to get in my hands.
As far as the issue of blogs and editing, there are obviously some people who spend more time on their work than others, same as in print, but often there are not very many other eyes between the writer and the page online, and it sometimes shows. One very prominent blogger sent me a long and very well received, at the time, blog post last year that was built around an anecdote that was apocryphal and demonstrably incorrect. But when he revisited the topic in print form a year later, it was corrected.
In some online contexts I think writers find it easier to be conversational rather than work with form and pace and other strategies like they would in print.
It reminds me of something I learned when writing a lot of poetry. When something is typed rather than handwritten, a transformation takes place and a certain objective distance is created. Writing on the internet goes through a transformation when it appears in print, and work in print is transformed when it appears online. Not better, not worse, but just different. No matter the format or medium, I just try to find writing that matters, without regard to its source or subject, work that can stand by itself in a book with twenty-five other pieces or so, and not be drowned out.
Just write something so good that I want to read it again. That’s all any of us are trying to do.