Monday, August 11, 2008

Make-Believe Games

Norm Geras recently mentioned that sports are rarely treated “head-on” in fiction -- that athletics can provide some flavor to novels but aren’t often served as the main course. Geras believes this is partly due to fiction’s inability to capture the uncertainty of sports. And Mark Lawson, whose own post prompted Geras, argued that the best novels “aspire to universality” and there aren’t any truly universal sports.

These explanations probably have something to do with it, but I’d put forth another. Lawson writes, “At the most basic level, there is a perceived separation between sport and literature.” As someone who’s a dedicated (often obsessive) fan of both sports and literature, I would say the separation between the physical and intellectual realms is one that is exceedingly difficult to capture well in language. It’s not that this separation is hard to understand. It’s that we understand it on an intuitive level that makes trying to convey it in print awkward and unproductive. This may be the reason why even the best writers can embarrass themselves when they attempt sex scenes.

About a week ago, Mark Levine published an article in Play, the New York Times’ sports magazine, about Michael Phelps. I think this passage near the end of the piece perfectly captures the point:
I met Phelps, out of his element, in a lounge at the United States Olympic Training Center, following swim practice. He was not an eager conversationalist. He fidgeted, resisted eye contact and responded to my questions briefly and with little enthusiasm. After 20 minutes, there was a pronounced silence between us. I'd like to think I understood the discomfort of the meeting. Yes, he was probably tired after practice; no doubt he was run down by endless obligations to the media. Above all, though, it seemed that Phelps was signaling the basic difference between his world and mine, between swimming and talking about it. In his medium, language is secondary; self-reflection can cost hundredths or tenths of a second. "My job is to be in the water and swim," he told me. "That's about it." I asked him what went through his mind during a race. "Nothing. I just get in the water and race." Phelps was telling it like it was, without any land-based need for elaboration, analysis or metaphor.


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