The Best American Sports Writing turns 20 this year. Peter Gammons is the guest editor and the book will be available in a few weeks. As always, it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about good writing.
To celebrate, here’s an excerpt from the forward by series editor Glenn Stout (I’ll have a Q&A with Glenn up shortly).
Twenty years ago, in the foreword to the inaugural edition of this book, I repeated an anecdote I heard Tim Horgan, long time sports columnist for The Boston Herald, tell at his retirement dinner. He said that when he was approached by aspiring students of sportswriting he always asked why he or she wanted to write about sports for a living. Invariably the students would respond to Horgan by saying, “Because I love sports.”
“Wrong,” Horgan would admonish. “You have to love the writing.”
I have never forgotten those words. They are the reason, as I explained in that first edition, why this book is called The Best American Sports Writing, two words, and not The Best American Sportswriting, the compound word, which would be a different collection entirely. First and foremost this is and has always been a book for those who love writing. That the writing is about sports is, of course, not insignificant, but my goal has always been to seek out stories that are so well written that the subject matter hardly matters, stories readers will enjoy, not simply because of the topic, but, just as a non-athlete can enjoy the artistry of an athlete, because of the artistry displayed by the writer,
A great deal has changed since I began the work of this book twenty years ago, both for me personally and in the field of sports writing. When I began serving this book as series editor, I had just turned thirty years old and lived in an apartment in Boston’s South End and freelanced while working as a librarian at the Boston Public Library. Over the ensuing twenty years BASW world headquarters have moved, first to a house in the suburbs and now to Vermont, hidden in the fields and woods alongside Lake Champlain near the Canadian border. I have married, buried both my parents and watched my daughter grow up amid the clutter of this book for each of her fourteen years. Eighteen years ago I quit my job and have been a full time writer ever since. I rehabbed an old rotator cuff tear, started playing baseball again, pitched in over-30 baseball leagues for ten years, and retired once more. I have coached girls softball and Little League, learned to ski and snorkel and kayak and skate, make my own beer, maple syrup and applesauce, given dozens of talks, visited scores of schools, written hundreds of columns and features, over forty juvenile books, a full dozen adult titles and edited several other anthologies. I’ve made some friends I’ll have for the rest of my life, and lost track of some because, quite frankly, the curse that every writer lives with is that every hour and minute we spend doing what we love are also hours and minutes we spend away from those who we care about. I easily spend six or eight hours almost every day writing (I usually have to ask my daughter, to her amusement, what day of the week it is), and hours more each day reading, usually for this book, sometimes while sitting on an exercise bike, or on the porch, or at the kitchen table eating, or in my chair watching a ballgame. The work of this book never ends, but has surrounded me for so long I sometimes barely notice.
In an earlier edition of the book I told the story about how I came to be selected to serve as Series Editor, something for which I am forever grateful and still a bit mystified, because, to be honest, I did not know how to do this when I started. I cannot imagine that anyone would know how to do this, really. Like the act of writing, this is a “learn by doing” experience.
My first editor, undoubtedly trying to impress me with the magnitude of my task, told me that the series editor for another Best American title kept file cards of publications and dutifully checked them off each time they arrived, notated the cards in regard to their contents, and that I should do the same. I bought a big box of file cards and dutifully began creating a similar card file system.
Then I looked at the pile of material waiting to be read and decided that anything that got in the way of reading should probably be ignored, and tossed the cards. I have kept things simple and never used any kind of grading or ranking system for the stories I read over beyond this: stories I want to read again go in one pile. Stories I don’t go into another, and when that much larger pile topples over, those stories either get recycled or go into my woodstove. As the deadline approaches I keep going over the “read again” pile until it gets small enough to send to the guest editor.
Of course, any changes in my life pale when compared with the changes that have taken place in writing and journalism. Twenty years ago – before anyone had ever called me “sir” – I had just made the transition from writing features and other freelance assignments in long-hand and then going into work early to type them out on an electric typewriter. I was beginning to work on a Magnavox Videowriter, a first generation word processor that, to a non-typist like myself (I use my thumb and two fingers on each hand and type at the speed of my mind, which is not very fast) seemed absolutely magical. When I was selected to edit this annual collection it came with the caveat that I had to buy a computer. It cost most of my advance and now my wristwatch probably contains more computing power.
Writers for newspapers and magazines were making – or had just made – a similar transition to computers, and there was, of course, no such thing as the online world which has changed almost everything everywhere, but few places more so than the commercial worlds of newspaper, magazine and book publishing. There is no point to hash over the obvious here, but anyone involved in any of these businesses knows that everything has changed, and in the last few years of economic recession, not for the better. There are, unquestionably, fewer print outlets for writing than there were twenty years ago, and space in those that remain has become more precious. The online universe, which did not even exist, now offers outlets to everyone, ranging from purely commercial platforms, to the virtually non commercial world of the blog. This is both a bad thing, because the best writing is generally done by professionals, and a good thing, because the best writing is not always done by professionals. Quality, not bylines, matter.
It has never been easy to earn a living as a writer, and it is particularly difficult now, but it probably never been easier to write. Resources are instantly accessible. In an hour I can research what used to take me weeks to do. But those same resources are now also at the fingertips of the reader, who does not always want or even appreciate the care and talent it takes to turn raw facts into fine writing.
In these pages we argue otherwise, because the only thing that has not changed over the last twenty years is the most important thing of all – the quality of the writing. I am amused that every three or four years some magazine (or, now, website) sees fit to run a story that bemoans the “death of sportswriting,” or some similar, “get off of my lawn” nonsense, and then sends it to me for consideration in next years’ edition.
Although I agree that a great deal has died over the last two decades, and perhaps a small portion of that compound word “sportswriting” has reached an end, I am something of a historian of both genres and believe that rumors of the demise of either are highly exaggerated. While I have yet to meet the writer who has become better at his or her craft by going on television or the radio, there always have been and continue to be great writers who value the written word above all others. But the notion of some kind of “Golden Age” of either sportswriting or sports writing is simply the kind of selective nostalgia that still prefers Mom’s meatloaf to any other.
From my chair sports writing seems to be doing quite well. The reason, of course, is the writer. Despite the conveyor belt of change, both in technology and the marketplace, that has been rocketing past, the writers who have appeared in this book and who I read each year have neither cowered in fear before the word and nor been frozen into silence.
Quite the opposite. Many of us who retain faith in the page probably write more and better than before. It’s in the blood, and despite all the logical arguments that can be made against pursuing writing of any kind as an avocation, at the end of each year I end up with a box of about two hundred stories that I want to read again, stories that I worry over as the pile gets smaller and the decisions more difficult, just as I did twenty years ago. At the end of the process, I still seem to find seventy stories or so that I feel are worthy of being sent to the guest editor. Unless they have collectively chosen to lie, each has had a difficult time selecting the twenty to twenty five stories that eventually appear in this book, not because they can’t find enough stories, but because they have a hard time paring the number of stories down to a manageable size.
Now I am the one who regularly gets phone calls or letters or emails from aspiring writers who call me “sir” and approach me in much the same way they approached Tim Horgan. I tell them the same thing he did; you have to love the writing. That, among all else, has not changed and I do not think it ever will.
Foreword” by Glenn Stout from THE BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
For more on BASW, peep Glenn’s website.