An embarrassing thing to admit to, but it’s the truth—for the past five years, I have been haunted by a blurb.
One night in the summer of 2016, I was scanning the fiction shelves at Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights when I came across the hardcover of Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, a comic, subtly experimental novel about 22 friends who convene every year to dress up in ratty football pads and reenact Lawrence Taylor’s infamous tackle of Joe Theismann. I would eventually read the book and learn just how brilliant it was; but that night I was spooked off buying it—off even holding the thing for one second longer—by the aforementioned blurb, by Tom Bissell:
“A hilarious literary novel about our least hilarious—and least literary—national pastime.”
The blurb unnerved me on a few fronts. Most immediately, I had been writing a novel that drew on my experiences as a scholarship linebacker at a Division One college program, and this sentiment from an established member of the literary world—so dismissive as to be parenthetical—didn’t bode well for how my book would be received. More generally, Bissell was repeating an orthodoxy that had apparently only become more engrained since I first heard it years earlier: that football doesn’t rise to the level of serious literary consideration, and thus what little literary fiction about the game that does exist is something of a freak.
To be fair, Bissell is right, football is not a mainstay of our literary culture, a fact that can be confirmed via any number of highly un-rigorous methodologies. Hie thee to your book search engine of choice and type in “football novel” and you’ll find yourself wandering down long digital hallways decorated chiefly by two types of images: 1) book cover thumbnails for volumes about that “other” football (i.e. soccer), or 2) cover thumbnails with steamy sans serif titles such as Blindsided (By His Game), which usually display a torso with its head cropped off, beefy shoulders sporting infinitesimal shoulder pads, and a full order of greased abs.
A few noteworthy, non-Bachelder novels about football have been published in the last ten years: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Copperhead, Lost Empress. These are harder to search for because they’re typically catalogued under other, more serious (or at least more bankable) subjects for literature, whether that’s the hollow glorification of our troops (Billy Lynn), the tenacious legacy of white supremacy (Copperhead), or the entrenchment of the carceral economy (Empress).
The last century boasts a few more, somewhat prominent titles, such as North Dallas Forty and Semi-Tough. But the former is far better known as the film starring Nick Nolte, while the latter—notwithstanding Sports Illustrated listing it as one of the top 100 sports books of all time—is an artifact of an era when throwing around racial epithets was seen as an act of literary audacity (go ahead and read the novel’s opening page—I dare you).
And as far as long-standing classics of literary football fiction? There are, to my mind, one and a half. The whole number is Frederick Exley’s 1968 masterpiece A Fan’s Notes, a cult novel about an alcoholic loser whose seeks salvation in his rabid love for the New York Giants. The half classic is Don DeLillo’s End Zone, a riotous short novel about the intersection of football strategy and nuclear warfare that only ever gets mentioned after people have exhausted themselves talking about DeLillo’s major work.
Speaking of Underworld. One just has to conduct a second search for “baseball novel” to see that a sport can occupy a permanent place in our literary culture. In fact, there was a time when it seemed that to be a major writer pretty much obliged you to have a baseball fiction under your belt—Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973) being just three examples.
The publication years of those books hint at how baseball novels took root. The decades following World War II were perhaps the final time literary culture will be even faintly synonymous with the mainstream, an era when Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer could eviscerate each other on late night couches, Roth’s latest could be a national scandal, and James Baldwin’s genius was exported to the Cambridge Union. Meanwhile, baseball was itself in a golden age, with gods like Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron at the plate and events of where-were-you-when-it-happened significance like “The Shot Heard Round the World” (which serves as Underworld’s celebrated opening set piece). For a few precious decades, literature and baseball occupied the same exclusive pop culture club, and it was inevitable that the two would rub shoulders.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the literary baseball novel is as hale as any other literary subject. At the dawn of the 2010s, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding received not just a spit-take advance but inspired a second book that was simply about the writing of a baseball novel. In the last two years, there have been at least three novels—Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League, Gish Jen’s The Resisters, and Lincoln Michel’s The Body Scout—with baseball at their cores, plus Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, in which the game provides a key organizing principle.
But—baseball? In a country maniacal for the newest, richest, gaudiest, and most-powerful, a sport that originated circa the Civil War and has steadily lost its cultural cachet is what continues to dominate our literature-sports nexus? Insofar as a country of 333 million people with countless ethnic, religious, and cultural combinations can be said to have a single national pastime, all signs point toward football, not baseball. A 2019 New York Times article found that 100 percent of counties in the United States aired at least one quarter of the games featuring the NFL’s most popular player, Tom Brady, while a daunting one percent of counties aired games featuring Mike Trout, baseball’s best player that season.Football’s complexity and size should not be things to warn off fiction writers or editors, but untapped resources that should be leading them to rush to claim its riches.
In 2018, 40 of the 50 most watched sporting events were professional football. And let’s not even get into college football, whose teams often inspire a diehard fanaticism of which their professional baseball neighbors can only dream (football is a $4 billion industry at public universities in the major college conferences). It is admittedly gross to be citing revenue figures in an essay about literature—but this country is gross, obsessed with power exactly of the kind football is so glutted with and baseball is so reliably losing.
So why, again, is football called our least literary pastime and baseball our most literary? I’ll count a few of the ways.
By dint of its long, storied history, baseball has been depicted as metonymy for bedrock American ideals—teamwork, optimism, exceptionalism. The novels and short stories written about the game have made great use of these positive associations, if only as a means of measuring just how far our country is from actually deserving them. The light makes for an effective contrast with the dark, is what I’m getting at (see the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa doping scandal—the narrative doesn’t work if there wasn’t an idealism to be betrayed in the first place).
Now think of early images associated with football; these aren’t sunny, carefree portraits, but Goya-worthy shots of mud-caked, dentally challenged galoots in violent extremis. Football started out in the American consciousness as dank, hypermasculine, brutal, and has only become more so as the game has grown in stature. It is not the go-to national symbol for many people.
Baseball’s simple rules, its in-built longueurs, and its focus on individual performance (c.f. “Casey at the Bat”) provide readymade plots, breathing room for writerly mediation, and clear character motives, all things that are highly amenable to fiction. Football, meanwhile, is governed by baroque, ever-shifting regulations, while its action alternates between 7-second spurts of 22-vector violence and long stretches of jargon-dense strategizing—much more difficult to dramatize.
By becoming popularized during literature’s talk-show apogee, the baseball novel was able to lodge itself in the cultural consciousness. But with the rise of film and television, literary borders started to not only close, they started shrinking, with literary culture receding ever farther from the center of public discourse. And just when literary culture was in retreat? Football was on the rise, its broadcasts reshaping how sports were experienced, its players becoming national celebrities whose fame could sustain them into their post-playing years, whether as movie stars, notorious criminals, or both. With readership declining, the book business grew more conservative about what stories it believed would fly in the marketplace, and football, unlike baseball, never gained the necessary lift.
Baseball is both an object and mirror of reactionary politics, but in the popular imagination this is a conservatism of the soft, dreamy variety, a longing for allegedly simpler times. Football’s conservatism, meanwhile, is the conservatism of the moment: proudly exclusionary, unquestioningly macho, confrontationally capitalist. Homophobia, corporatization, toxic masculinity, domestic violence scandals, concussion coverups, the stifling of political activism—most of the members of the left-leaning literary world who don’t openly disdain the game seem content to ignore it and its ideological baggage.
But what if you flipped each of these reasons on their heads? What if the supposed perceived literary vices of football are actually its greatest virtues—make the game in urgent need of the examinations of which fiction is uniquely capable?
The mythos of America as the shining city on a hill was always that—a myth, a fantasy, at best a placebo used to treat the despair ever on offer in America. The idyllic vision of a bunch of kids taking their beat-up gloves and dented bat to the sandlot on some sunny summer morning was already iffy before COVID-19, and with almost 750,000 Americans dead from the virus, it’s now so far removed from lived experience as to have lost even the power of a false nostalgia. We live in the time of protests against police brutality, the 1619 Project, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a time in which artists, journalists, and scholars are working to pound away the false veneer on our country’s foundations in order to uncover the dark materials beneath. Football’s violent, exploitative associations could not make for a more apposite national symbol.
Football’s complexity and size should not be things to warn off fiction writers or editors (or readers, for that matter), but untapped resources that should be leading them to rush to claim its riches. This goes for both the game itself—just imagine all the possibilities for characterization, plot, and experimentation afforded by such a huge gathering of people—but also for the sprawling apparatus that surrounds the sport. With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain spun a daring 320-page novel out of the logistics of a halftime celebration, and similar treatments could center on, say, the meat market of the NFL combine, the venal ecosystem of college football recruiters, proxy warfare between audio-visual gurus, or something as focused as a story of a girl who dreams of being a head coach or a sciatic father of four who humps Bud Lites up and down stories-high stadium steps every autumn Sunday.
If the baseball novel shows America as we’d like to see ourselves, the football novel can show us as we are. What other sport so accurately encapsulates America’s noxious racial divide, with young people of color dominating rosters while the head coaching ranks, donorati, and team owners are overwhelmingly elderly, rich, and white? What other sport better gets at capitalist exploitation at the national scale, with working class kids (of any race) lured into a physically devastating activity via the lie that it will provide them the tools for social mobility? What other sport so deeply draws from some of the country’s most marginalized regions—the Deep South, the Industrial Midwest—and by so doing exemplifies the regional inequalities that have made for our ongoing national political nightmare?
Nonfiction can chart the contours of these themes—but fiction allows readers to feel the stuff itself. And what they’ll feel isn’t pleasant. An old saw about fiction is that it comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. If that cliché persists, it’s because it locates literature’s signal worth in its ability to harness what is dark, dank, and uneasy. If football embodies those traits, if it is the lurking, gigantic shadow self of this country, it is the most literary sport we have.