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Books | Sports

October 31, 2008

The Passion of Buzz Bissinger

The author of Friday Night Lights is a fierce advocate of print journalism, even as he senses its imminent obsolescence.

Max Lakin

The name Buzz Bissinger might be most closely associated with Friday Night Lights, the transcendent chronicle of a Texas city built on high-school football, and its various spawn. But the Bissinger canon extends further than Odessa's Permian Panthers, further even than sports journalism. He's a standard-bearer of immersion reporting—story-telling journalism that evokes both place and time, and gathers the threads of life in America.

Bissinger's work—the investigation of Philadelphia political and judicial graft, for which he and his colleagues shared a Pulitzer; the exposé of a young reporter for the New Republic led astray by his own ambition—is all very familiar, even if you didn't know his name was attached.

Buzz Bissinger. Photo by Caleb Bissinger.
"We might as well enjoy the printed word as much as we can as it sings its swan song."

Buzz Bissinger. Photo by Caleb Bissinger.

Bissinger's voice is unmistakably impassioned, perhaps most acutely in his however-unwitting campaign to stave off the encroaching abyss of the Internet and the dissolution of all that is Holy in the Written Word, and any other cause he happens to take up. Seemingly in everything Bissinger approaches, he has the same fervor championed in his sports writing—a gut-driven, impulse-forward sensibility. As fluid as it is burly.

Gelf spoke with Bissinger about the roots of his career, being part of the liberal media elite, and speculating about what his obituary headline might read, along with some lighter topics concerning the general future of journalism as we know it. You can hear Bissinger, Drew Magary, and Dan Steinberg at Gelf's free Varsity Letters reading series on November 6 in New York's Lower East Side.

GM: You're a New York native son, yet you defected to that most hated of National League cities, Philadelphia. What pulled you to The 'Illadelph, as beleaguered Mets fans refer to it?

BB: My sole reason for moving to Philadelphia in 1981 was to work at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which at that time was arguably the best newspaper for young writers in the country. I came to the paper from St. Paul, where I had been working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for the past three years.

GM: What do you say to all this business about the East Coast Elite, and would you classify yourself as one, for better or worse?

BB: I guess it depends on how you measure it. My education at Andover and Penn certainly smacks of East Coast elitism. But my career does not. I applied to 307 papers in search of employment in 1976, the year I graduated from Penn, and got two job offers, one in Roanoke and one in Norfolk. I took the one in Norfolk. I worked there for two and half years, then moved to the St. Paul Pioneer Press and was there for three years before going to the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was at the Inquirer for seven years before I quit and moved to Odessa, Texas, for a year to write Friday Night Lights. Trust me, if I was some East Coast elite smackhead, they would have thrown me out of town.
After Odessa, I moved to Milwaukee and commuted back and forth to Chicago to work at the Tribune. So I've lived all over the country—East, South, Southwest, Midwest. If I were just another East Coast elite, I would have gone straight to New York after college and stayed there. I did the opposite. I was willing to work anywhere in the country.

GM: You seem to be one of those mainstream-friendly authors—a lot of commercial success, a handful of film adaptations, and a couple more on the slate. Do you chalk that up to coincidence, or is it something you account for in your drafting process?

BB: Getting a movie made is just plain luck. But if I have any skill as a writer, it is in choosing subjects, or at least trying to choose subjects, that lend themselves to a mainstream audience. Like most authors, I want people to read what I write. And trust me, it doesn't happen all the time. A Prayer for the City, about urban America and what I consider to be my best book, was a commercial bomb. So my instincts are good— about half the time.

GM: Your epic showdown with Will Leitch on Costas Now back in April deftly polarized the emergence of new media. (You said that blogs, among other things, were "dedicated to cruelty, journalistic dishonesty, and speed," and followed up by comparing Leitch to "Jimmy Olsen on Percocet"). It was plain you were sufficiently steamed on the issue—perhaps, as you hinted at yourself, because you realized your school of journalism had become the old school of journalism. Were you lamenting a Changing of the Guard or a descent into a feckless editorial oblivion?

BB: I was lamenting a changing of the guard to some degree, and after the whole flap, I realized even more acutely the likely obsolescence of myself and my fellow brethren. Bloggers were all over me after the appearance, and I felt the full force of their intensity and power. Everywhere I looked, until I stopped looking, another blog was digging its teeth into me.

Buzz Bissinger at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on November 6.

GM: I'm sure you're aware you'll be speaking alongside Drew "Big Daddy Balls" Magary. In your row on Costas, you basically credited Magary with the complete and utter dissolution of everything good and natural in writing. Which is what makes your endorsement blurb of Magary's new book that much more curious. Where did that come from?

BB: After the whole fiasco, Drew sent me a very cordial email. I responded with a cordial email. We continued emailing and we liked each other. No vitriol. No name-calling. He asked me to blurb his book and I did because the book business is hard and I believe in helping out authors, particularly authors who write books that are funny. Simple as that.

GM: Fair enough. Still, since that fateful roundtable, you've become a kind of touchstone for the newspaper/blog debate. (Gelf has asked "Bissinger or Leitch?" of its recent Varsity Letters interviewees, like "Chocolate or Vanilla?") But we know you're not a complete Luddite: Earlier this year, even before Costas, you told the Times you Google your own name three to four times a day. Has your opinion on blogs and their commentariat changed at all, or are they still Public Enemy No. 1?

BB: Let's get this out of the way now: I was way over the top in my appearance. When I saw my wife afterwards, she just shook her head as if I'd gotten publicly caught shoplifting. I treated Will Leitch in a manner that was uncalled for and totally disrespectful. I was way too amped up. My experience with sports blogs, which was admittedly limited at that point, did lead me to conclude that they were "dedicated to cruelty, journalistic dishonesty and speed." Having seen a lot more blogs since then, there are some good and serious ones out there, just as there are still way too many dedicated to cruelty. So my opinion has changed—slightly. And yes, it is the comments that are generally far more vile than the actual posts.

GM: For all its faults, though, the internet can't be the nostrum for print's ills—the media climate isn't so friendly right now, and no one can seem to stop the bleeding. Working your way up in print journalism, as you did, is proving frighteningly impossible, and for a lot of writers, the web is the only open door. What needs to be done to restore the glory of the medium, or do we just enjoy it on its way out?

BB: The only way as far as I can tell is to stop worrying about the bleeding and just do the best journalism you can do. But as the bleeding continues, more and more papers will follow the lead of the Christian Science Monitor, which is going solely online during the week. So I think you're probably right—we might as well enjoy the printed word as much as we can as it sings its swan song.

GM: You've had a recent stint as a guest columnist for the New York Times as well: a handful of columns ostensibly about sports, but really, at least to me, more a dissection of the human drive behind fandom and culture. And also about the hatred of Barry Bonds. Talk to me a little about "The Throwback" series, and what, if anything, you were trying to do.

BB: I guess I was trying to go behind the typical sports column and write about the role of sports in our culture, particularly in terms of over-emphasis.

GM: Are you surprised that, of all your books, FNL has become the most successful? Do you think that will be what you're remembered most for?

BB: I wasn't surprised. I think Friday Night Lights had the greatest potential to strike a chord with mainstream readers. The book represented an experience that as it turns out, well over a mllion readers could identify with and relate to. I say that on the basis of literally thousands of comments I have received over the years that "my high school" was just like "the high school you wrote about." It certainly is the work I will be remembered for. Sometimes when I'm depressed I fantasize how the headline of my obit will read in the Times, and it will no doubt read "Friday Night Lights Author Kicks the Bucket."

GM: Several authors who have come to Varsity Letters, such as Neal Thompson and Kate Torgovnick, have said they were aiming to write the Friday Night Lights of their subjects. Are you flattered? Is there another subject you would address in a similar fashion, sport or otherwise?

BB: I am flattered. And if I could find a similar subject to induce such imitation, I would do it in a second. Problem is, I haven't been able to find one and I don't think I will.

GM: A Prayer for the City was your second book, and marked your return to your investigative roots, as well as to the East Coast. Did you not have your fill of Philly intrigue at the Inquirer?

BB: I wanted to write a book about urban America. To do it the way I wanted to do it, I needed access to a big-city mayor, and my best shot was with Ed Rendell when he became mayor of Philadelphia in 1992. I knew Ed from my days at the Inquirer. I knew if anybody would give me access, he would. I also knew he had the type of larger-than-life personality that was needed to carry a book such as this. Plus whatever you think of Philadelphia now, it was an absolute urban nightmare in the early 1990s—broke both spiritually and financially—which only made for a better story.

GM: What do you think of the state of sports journalism in the classical sense, outside of blogs?

BB: I think it's mixed. Several years ago I had the honor of editing The Best American Sports Writing series that is published by Houghton Mifflin, and I was astounded and gratified by the quality of the pieces. They came from the usual suspects, such as Sports Illustrated, but some of them came from alternative weeklies and small newspapers I had never seen in my life. I worry that with the web paranoia that has set in, these kind of well-reported, in-depth features may get subsumed. Shorter is not always better. The length of a story should depend solely on how well it is written, how well it is reported, and how well it tells a compelling story. If the story is compelling enough, a reader will read ten thousand words of something with heart and soul and pleasure.

GM: Now I'm going to ask you about Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, fully prepared for your likely displeasure. Do you really think it's as detrimental and generally wrong as you've written?

BB: I think Michael Lewis is a brilliant writer and thinker. But I think the game of baseball cannot only be determined by statistical analysis. Heart and desire and chemistry have to count for something and do count for something—more than something. It also seemed to me there were three reasons the Oakland A's were good when Lewis wrote about them: Zito, Mulder, and Hudson. And they were barely mentioned in the book, so there was in my mind some sin by omission. Much was made of the seven draft picks the A's had that year and how brilliant they were. But I think I'm right about this—not one of those draft picks is currently playing for the A's. They either bombed out (catcher Jeremy Brown, who was one of the great stars of the book) or got traded. And some of the key theories espoused by Billy Beane, such as the idea that pretty much any pitcher could close, were later rejected.

GM: Three Nights in August, in which you shadow St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa during a home series against their nemesis the Chicago Cubs, has been described as a response to Moneyball, even though you wrote in the preface that it "was not a response to Moneyball." As with your stand on the print and web debate, Three Nights has been adopted as a decisive front on the direction of modern baseball, in its defense of things like passion and instinct which the book posits are the true mantles of the game. So even though you may not have conceived it as such, do you consider Three Nights at all a rejoinder to Lewis's number-heavy analysis of the MLB?

BB: I suppose Three Nights can be construed that way because Tony's attitude about the game is so different from Billy Beane's. But let's remember here—95 percent of Three Nights is about what a manager does and why he does it. It is about the strategy of the game, not a detailed deconstruction of statistical analysis. Smart statistical analysis has a place in baseball, a good place, and Tony is the first to admit that, just as he is also fervent in his belief that desire and heart and instinct are also essential. And Tony, by the way, is not a particularly instinctive manager. He relies heavily on pitcher-hitter match-ups in making decisions, although some accuse his analyses of being faulty because the statistical sample is often too small (e.g., a batter going all of 1-for-5 against a pitcher being used as a determinant to bring in a certain pitcher).

GM: What do you say to baseball analysts such as Nate Silver, who devotes his website to political predictions, and who championed Tampa Bay as 88-game winners way back when they were still 96-game losers?

BB: Brilliant prediction. What can I say? He deserves all the credit for it.

GM: Lewis's book has been optioned for the screen, with that Brad Pitt guy rumored to fill Billy Beane's shoes. With the Three Nights adaptation in development, the comparisons undoubtedly will be resurrected. Someone actually already cast the idea, seemingly without any knowledge of the book. What do you think of the simultaneous adaptations, and this guy's choices? Personally, I'm seeing Javier Bardem in the La Russa role.

BB: The question is kind of moot, because at this juncture, the adaptation of Three Nights is pretty much dead in the water. But the casting of Barack Obama as Carlos Marmol is brilliant. Kid Rock as Kerry Wood isn't so bad, either. And I have to agree that Javier Bardem is a much better choice as La Russa than Gene Hackman.

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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