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.