Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

January 12, 2015

Don't Call It a Longform Comeback

Glenn Stout says sportswriting has never been better off. And he's in a position to know.

Michael Gluckstadt

Depending on whom you rant to, we're either living in a golden age of sportswriting or a scene that's practically medieval. Newspaper sports sections are being gutted, but a thousand sports websites have risen in their place. Next-day game stories have become all but meaningless, though writing has never been easier to find. But is it any good?

Glenn Stout (in Newfoundland)
"I'd be disappointed if every once in while a reader didn't throw the book halfway across the room."

Glenn Stout (in Newfoundland)

If there's anyone in a position to rule on this debate it's Glenn Stout, the editor of the country's most prestigious annual sports anthology, The Best American Sports Writing. Stout has been involved with the Best American series—which has offerings on science writing, mysteries, and nonrequired reading, among many other topics—since The National was still printing new editions. He's also the longform editor at Vox Media's SB Nation. So how does he feel about the current state of the field?

"There is more good work being produced now than ever before, particularly longer features," he tells Gelf. "I read more than anybody and at the end of the year I still come across submissions of great stories I had not encountered before."

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Stout discusses the writers he's proud to have brought to a wider audience, the cause behind the longform renaissance, and how to write books for kids.

Gelf Magazine: You've been editing the BASW collection since it started in 1991. Are the submissions you receive now very different than they were back then?

Glenn Stout: Of course. I used to receive many, many more submissions from newspapers. In the '90s newspapers were doing many more takeouts and features, and there were still nearly a hundred Sunday supplement magazines, most of which published features. And although I've always considered any kind of work (columns, gamers, etc.), the books are sports writing—two words, writing about sports—and not "sportswriting," which tends to be more narrow.

Gelf Magazine: Do you seek out stories in publications that go beyond sports?

Glenn Stout: Oh yeah, I always have. Since the start I've used a pretty wide definition of "sports" and made it clear that I'm open to submissions form any kind of publication, that might feature writing about sports. We've used stories from academic and literary journals, blogs, and publications closely identified with other subjects, like politics or science. I'll look at anything in English, from the US or Canada, published in a calendar year, as long as it's not a book. That's the criteria.

Gelf Magazine: For the purposes of eligibility in your series, how do you define what is and isn't a sport? Have you included anything you were on the fence about in that sense?

Glenn Stout: I'm in the happy position that I can cast as wide a net as possible and send it to the guest editor to sort out what is or isn't a sport. Trying to decide what is a "sport" is like trying to decide what is "best"—we all have our own notions of that. But I'd be disappointed if every once in while a reader didn't throw the book halfway across the room and snort "that's not a sport!" I hope the book doesn't play it safe in any capacity.

Gelf Magazine: Having read thousands of sports stories, do you find certain types and tropes repeating themselves?

Glenn Stout: Sure, I mean I was just telling someone the other day that I bet I get a half-dozen stories submitted every year on women's football, and in the past five or six years concussion stories have been in every book I think. To a degree, the book is reflective of what's going on, so repeats of subjects are to be expected, and writers duplicate approaches all the time. But they remain so inventive that even after 24 years I don't think readers find that the book repeats itself. Every guest editor brings something different.

Gelf Magazine: What sport produces the best writing? The worst?

Glenn Stout: It's not the sport that's responsible, it's the writer. In general I would say the sports where writers have the most difficult time suppressing their fan instinct are the ones they shouldn't write about, or write about much.

Gelf Magazine: How different would the books be if you chose the selections rather than the guest editors?

Glenn Stout: I play a game each year in which I compare my selections to the guest editors, and (almost) invariably the overlap is about 60 to 70 percent. If I got to make the picks every year, however, I think they'd be a little more unexpected, that there would be a few more stories by unknown writers from little known places—and that's why everything I put forward to the guest editor is done so blindly, not identified by author or source.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have certain pieces (or writers) that you're particularly proud of bringing to a new audience?

Glenn Stout: Absolutely. I have a lot of writers tell me that making the book—or even just making the Notables—has changed their entire career path, and I have the same experience now at SB Nation Longform. Quite a few writers appeared in BASW way before most of the country knew who they were—we had Wright Thompson when he was still with the KC Star, Kevin Van Valkenberg when he was still with the Baltimore Sun, Juliet Macur was still at the Dallas Morning News, Mike Mooney when he was still with the Miami New Times, Paul Solotaroff at the Village Voice, Tommy Craggs at SF Weekly. Now, none of them were entirely unknown, but I think BASW exposed them to a national audience and probably helped draw attention to them and their work perhaps a little faster than may have happened otherwise. And look where they are now.

Gelf Magazine: Given the rise of online sportswriting, free and available to all, does that make it more challenging to produce a book with pieces people haven't already read?

Glenn Stout: Not at all. I think this is the golden age. There is more good work being produced now than ever before, particularly longer features, and so many great young ambitious writers who now have a chance get to try and experiment and get feedback and get better. I read more than anybody and at the end of the year I still come across submissions of great stories I had not encountered before.

Gelf Magazine: Sports Illustrated has quipped that they've been longform since 1954. What do you make of the recent longform renaissance on digital platforms?

Glenn Stout: Well, full disclosure, I'm part of it, since I started the Longform program at Vox Media's SB Nation two and a half years ago and serve as editor. Every week we produce the equivalent to one of the "bonus" pieces they used to feature in the magazine, but hardly do anymore, and our work has been recognized by places like Longform, Longreads, Nieman Storyboard and other aggregators. Longform isn't being done by anyone as a vanity project, but because there's an audience, and an enthusiastic and growing audience. Almost every day I hear from young journalists in high school and college whose goal is to produce this kind of work. And from my experience, it's what people want to read, in increasing numbers. There are reasons for that: the demise of the newspaper, the shrinkage of magazine advertising and resulting loss of content pages, and the virtual abandonment of the nonfiction mid-list by major publishers. In combination, over the last six or eight years this left an existing appetite unfulfilled, one the "Best Americans" have been feeding for decades, one we continue to, and one that digital publishers, quite naturally, have moved to satisfy. The medium simply makes it easier for readers to access this kid of material—you have thousands of sources and zillions of stories in your phone or tablet all the time—you're not carrying around a magazine.
I don't get all the public handwringing over the genre—it's growing in a field where a whole lot of other stuff isn't. But most of it seems to come from people bothered by the term (so call it what you want), or the longform back-slapping mafia on Twitter (so don't follow it), and from those who fear being left out or left behind.

Gelf Magazine: You also write sports books for kids: in your Good Sport series and before that, under the pen name of Matt Christopher. What makes for a good kids' sports story?

Glenn Stout: Well, I used to do that. Despite every title winning some award, and selling pretty well, and the fact I've probably written and sold more of this kind of work that any writer on the planet, Barnes and Noble refused to stock my series, so it went under: that's today's book business. But what makes a good kids' story, at least in the biographies I wrote? True stories, honestly presented, that respect the reader. Even if they're only ten years old.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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