Friday, June 24, 2011

A brief, made-up football writing typology

It seems to me there are three distinct types of football writing.

First, we have the straight-up, journalistic, newspaper style match-report. There are some intriguing variations on this approach, like Michael Cox's Zonal Marking with its intense tactical hermeneutics, or the florid style you might sometimes find in a strange place like the Mirror, incorporating all sorts of colourful, often mixed metaphors that end up featured in the opening pages of When Saturday Comes.

The second type is of the behind-the-scenes, over-arcing, "business of football" stuff. This includes the David Conn FIFA hypocrisy breakdown, the Grant Wahl long-form Sports Illustrated interview, Simon Kuper's recent look at the growing influence of statistics in football based on the "Moneyball" approach popularized by the Oakland A's, now coming to a theatre near you. It's the "what" of the sport beyond the field of play.

The third seems to be a more recent phenomena (although rooted in sportswriting history), popularized by the current giant of this genre, Brian Phillips. This is the football ephemera, the more abstract, literary football piece. It has its roots in a particular kind of sportswriting that was ghettoized in magazines of record like the New Yorker, once popularized by writers like Gay Talese. It loves the well-crafted sentence, but it's not there to inform, it's there to question. Why are we watching football at all?

This is not to say there is no fluidity between these types. Often the third when combined with the first can be a thing of great beauty, as in the early writing of Brian Glanville. The second and third can work very well together, as comes across often (and beautifully) in David Goldblatt's epic The Ball is Round. 

The desire among many work-a-day British football journalists to move from the sometimes limited first type and more to the second and third types inspired the birth of the Blizzard magazine. I think the move is also an acknowledgement that sportswriting in general is flirting more and more with the literary form, the memoir piece, the thought experiment. Hence the recent launch of Bill Simmons' webmag project, Grantland.

The reasons for the shift are kind of obvious. While the newspaper is fading in importance as a primary news source, with an amazing array of options for immediate post match write-ups, or even better—video highlights—the traditional (peculiarly North American) obsession with the first type of writing is starting to fade.

Still, there is a distinct hunger for primary source, long-form news and analysis. For those who want something more than a readership-obsessed magazine can give, there are blogs like the Swiss Ramble, content to dive as deep as they can into the financial grit behind clubs as diverse as  Roma or Wolves. It's also become the favoured approach of online sites like Guardian football, ESPN, etc, giving readers a better reason to visit than match analysis and box scores. Old worries about scaring off a wider audience with particulars have faded as the Internet (and the magazine industry) clearly favours the "niche", not mass, market.

As for the third category of football writing, we've seen an incredible growth in the last five years or so. I predict in the years to come, the idea of the personal sports memoir in the David Foster Wallace "Federer as religion" type piece will come into its own as a distinct genre, and a staple of modern sportswriting. Football is of course very much at home with the style, seeing as it is capable of absorbing a seemingly endless variety of personal interpretations, revisions, metaphors. It also provides the non-hardcore sports fan some element of the universal enjoyment of the game, a reason to watch beyond the tired stereotypes of sport as opiate of the masses.    


elliott said...

What about the fourth category: soccer blogging about blogging?

In all seriousness, great stuff Richard - I also think Bill Simmons deserves a lot of credit for the shift from "player focus" to "fan focus" in mainstream sports media.

Of course, that raises another criticism/question - has capitalism turned sports into circus and athletes into chattel, where we the spectator are the consumer and always right?

Jason Davis said...

Awesome. All for it. Now who's going to pay me to do it?