Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

"We should do more to develop the next Shakespeare and less to develop the next Justin Verlander."

Little League baseball, May 2010 - 26

A few years ago, in a Chicago coffee shop, I got into a conversation with two writer friends about sports. One couldn’t understand why pro athletes were paid so much money and ended up delivering a passionate riff on how she didn’t see any actual purpose in sports. The man at the next table was patently eavesdropping and kept opening his mouth as if to jump in, but he ultimately refrained. To this day, I’ve always wondered what he would have said, and whether he would have joined in on my friend’s side, or if he’d have helped me try to explain why most people really enjoy sports. I know one thing: I’ve certainly heard far more people wonder what the purpose of writing (particularly fiction) is than wonder what the purpose of sports is.

In a recent essay on Slate, sportwriter Bill James asks, “Why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?”

American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes?

First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes’ success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they’re still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

Some of James’s logic is a little wonky—see the discussion here, where I first read about this essay—but this is an interesting question. And it isn’t really a sports-OR-writing deal, either. We have a great farm system set up to encourage, develop, and reward young athletes. What can we do to encourage, develop, and reward young writers?

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