Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

June 1, 2010

A Century of Harper's at the Ballgame

A new collection of essays from the venerable magazine gives sportswriting a good name.

Max Lakin

Criticism has long been lobbed at sportswriting: that it is serious writing's unserious cousin, slightly boorish, perhaps with an overbite or some kind of walking impediment—that it often appears next to the crossword and the weather report for a reason. Yet the sportswriting that has appeared in the estimable Harper's Magazine—nearly three dozen pieces of which are collected now in a new anthology called Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine—has always made the case that sports need not be relegated to the journalistic kids' table.

Matthew Stevenson
"We believe that the confluence of the essay and sports is a fading art, and hope that it will inspire younger writers to maybe emulate earlier forms."

Matthew Stevenson

The collection itself is an astonishing document that finds Pete Axthelm reveling in the gritty humanism and "fabric of life" of New York street basketball, Rich Cohen delineating the investment of fandom through the microcosm of the Chicago Cubs, and long-time Harper's editor Lewis H. Lapham surveying the emotional carnage of drugs in contemporary baseball. That these pieces concern themselves less with the celebrity of pro athletes or ascendancy of athletic dynasty—themes we are inundated with now—and more with the way we digest sports as people is perhaps no accident. The best in sports and the best in writing are not too far from each other: Both illuminate the better parts of ourselves.

As editors of the collection, Harper's contributing editor Matthew Stevenson and freelance writer Michael Martin do not tether the march of the essays to an obvious chronology or athletic denomination, instead plucking remarkable pieces from the magazine's century-large archive that serve as cultural landmarks—places in time immediately identifiable by their political inequity, their racial unrest, or their ebullient nationalism, but are only fully expressed once they are expressed through the prism of sport. Stevenson recently spoke with Gelf on the coming together of a hundred years of Harper's sportswriting, the post-it note hypothetical, and the possible end of magazine sports features.

Gelf Magazine: Harper's is not necessarily regarded first for its sportswriting, yet the collection calls that notion into question. What was the impetus for anthologizing these pieces?

Matthew Stevenson: We had several motivations for the collection. First, we thought it would sell. Second, the pieces are too good to be lost in the archive or in back issues. Third, and maybe most of all, we believe that the confluence of the essay and sports is a fading art, and a hope for the collection is that it will inspire younger writers to look at and maybe emulate earlier forms.

Gelf Magazine: George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, both Harper's mainstays, appear most prodigiously, but writers less quickly associated with the magazine are in there, too. Was the compilation chiefly your and Michael's curation? How did you choose what to include?

Matthew Stevenson: Michael and I had a lot of fun culling the Harper's Magazine archive for the best pieces. The magazine had sent me a "starter kit," but truthfully it did not hold together as a book, so Michael and I started swapping links to essays that we liked. Criteria: We only decided to include pieces that we liked and by writers whom we admired. The short expression that we used: Would you copy this one and send it to a friend with a Post-it note that said: "Read this"?

Gelf Magazine: What would you say, if it exists explicitly, is the tradition of sportswriting in Harper's Magazine?

Matthew Stevenson: For Harper's Magazine, sports is the point of departure to talk about politics, race, history, or literature. Rarely is the score of much interest. For the collection, I actually searched for a game account, and could not find one.

Gelf Magazine: A lot of the pieces here are metafictional accounts of sports journalism—writing about writing about sports. Yet instead of being indulgent, they work to help explain more fully what it is that the fan, having no particular impact on a game—like, as Gary Cartwright writes, most sportswriters having no business in journalism—is provided by his fandom. Is that, do you think, the real allure of this kind of writing—finding in it something of our own?

Matthew Stevenson: I find the allure of sportswriting is that it mixes the familiar—a game—with the unexpected—an essayist's view of life. I even love reading essays about games where I know the score, if the writing is compelling, as it is in this collection.

Gelf Magazine: Much of the kind of sportswriting done today falls in one of several unenviable designations: The colorless back-page game account; the fawning, lionizing Sports Illustrated profile; or the one-off blog post that then-Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards railed against for being at best unrevelatory, at worst damaging to the nature of athletics. Harper's published true prose, about sports, before it was fashionable. In the current flux of the writing industry—notable recently at Harper's—do you believe we'll be the benefactor of such writing in years to come, or that it will even have a place to go?

Matthew Stevenson: The longer essay will only survive in books that later are run in magazines. Hard for me to imagine that magazines will commission thoughtful essays on sports, as they have in the distant past. But books have a life—on Kindles or iPads or wherever—and there the Harper's tradition will live on.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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