“She wrote a long letter/ On a short piece of paper” - Traveling Wilburys, “Dirty World”
For every length of writing, there is something to admire. If you can find the interesting in the mundane, people will subscribe to your Twitter feed for 140-character doses. When that form can’t hold a more complex thought, one graduates to blogs (and the potential for dozens of commenters to complain “Too long!” after more than one paragraph break). Still, some ideas demand more. With long-form magazine writing dying with every shuttered publication, the inspired writer turns to books for a proper medium … and a decent payday.
In a way, it could be like the Bill James concept of the defensive spectrum in baseball. Difficult positions like catcher and shortstop are on the left-hand side of the spectrum, with “easy” spots like first base and DH on the right-hand side. One can move to the right pretty easily (like a catcher moving to first base), but you wouldn’t want Boston Red Sox DH David Ortiz manning shortstop anytime soon. But is the book the most difficult writing medium to master? And is the blog “easier”?
The Onion AV Club highlighted a bunch of books back in November that were adapted from successful Web sites, with varying degrees of success. The Onion itself has archived itself in book form to great success, attributable to the quality of the comedy and interviews found in the newspaper and on the Web site. The holiday season afforded me the chance to check out a few of these books borne from the thousands of writers who have carved out a niche online.
Drew Magary, along with the rest of his cohorts at the site Kissing Suzy Kolber, disintegrates the notion that football fans care more about the jersey than the players wearing them. A post-game press conference or a simple photo can be all it takes for the creative writers to turn someone like quarterback Philip Rivers into an endless supplier of comedic material. And while each writer still holds true to his team alliance, the site offers a home for fans who can laugh at the game that causes so much anguish in others.
Magary used this ethos to write Men With Balls: The Professional Athlete’s Handbook. Through the gimmick of a life manual, Magary manages both to parody the form and the athlete culture that provides so much material for his Web site. The book succeeds where (former) Deadspin editor Will Leitch stumbled with God Save The Fan. With so much potential material, Leitch couldn’t aggregate his various insights into a meaningful form, despite his obvious writing ability. Magary may be more prone to ALL CAPS declarations and references to sexual orifaces, but he rightly concentrates on the humor while letting the (accurate) insights slip quietly into the material. This clear focus results in a quick, funny read that Magary’s Web fans can foist onto friends unfamilar with Kissing Suzy Kolber as a primer to the must-read humor site.
Television Without Pity takes a somewhat different approach. Subtitled “752 Things We Love to Hate (And Hate to Love) About TV,” the book version almost seems like a collection of pop culture references meant to bring you up to speed in the snarky world of television reviewing – like those Lost reruns with pop-up information airing before the season premiere. Authors Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting wrote the book in 2006, but because the topics consist mainly of old television shows, the age of TV Land and DVD box sets keeps the content from growing too stale.
The book arranges information in an alphabetical encyclopedia, with references to other entries throughout its 300 pages. This helps its reading-on-the-toilet function, but the style doesn’t preclude someone from reading straight through. In either case, you realize this isn’t an academic exercise. The authors don’t mince words: The everpresent catchphrase consists of “Shut up, _____” (insert annoying person, place or Dawson’s Creek reference here). Both authors write with a conversational, knowing-but-not-all-knowing style ported nicely from the Web site. Many major sites have co-opted the TwoP style, but few match the type of tone that comes from being a devoted fan with enough writing chops to detail the highs and lows of a relationship with a TV show.
If you watch a lot of television, many of the references (like, say, the “Cousin Oliver-ing” of a character on a long-running show), might not knock you over with a revelatory blow. I’m probably just on the periphery of their target audience: about a dozen TiVo’d shows and a subscription to Entertainment Weekly. But there’s enough “there” there to make for enjoyable, lightweight entertainment … like a well-written episode of a sitcom without the embarrassments of a “very special episode.”
Finally, the launch of the MLB Network and lingering free agents means baseball can’t be obscured by the freezing temperatures, fresh snowfall or a media firestorm emanating from Dallas Cowboys camp. A couple of books have helped in bridging this gap from World Series to Spring Training, and one I have bought the last few years comes from The Hardball Times.
The 2009 Baseball Annual manages to take the “collection of essays” format and turn it into both a look back at the year that was and a macro view of the game and where it’s heading. With this volume, the casual fan can find a few interesting facts lost in the 162-game grind (from writers of the site and other well-known scribes like Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer), while a statistician can devour whole sections devoted to offensive, defensive and pitching performance, replete with graphs and just about anything else you’d need. But my favorite feature makes it more than just an impulse buy and allows it to sit alongside the other books on my bookshelf: surprising looks back at baseball history.
This year, a couple of essays stood out. Craig Wright takes a great look at Honus Wagner, a man known today more for his baseball card than his remarkable skills. Books like Crazy ’08 worked to change that, and Wright shows how Wagner’s skills showed a remarkable lack of decline into his late-30s and early-40s, before Bonds and Clemens had (possibly through chemistry) changed our notions of a normal career arc. Frankly, if Wagner had played today, his stat line would invite the speculation that befell those titans. That he did so in the early part of the century when offensive production wasn’t so easy to come by? Just incredible.
Another essay (by Craig Brown) examines how Pete Rose went from being a Cincinnati Red to landing with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1979. Now, I consider myself at least somewhat knowledgeable about baseball history, and I have the Amazon.com bills to prove it. But I never knew about the convoluted system that greeted the first free agents, which included teams declaring which players they wanted to negotiate with (and with a cap of two signings per team and no more than 12 teams calling dibs on one player). Rose manages his way through this minefield to end up on a contender with a lot more gambling money in his pocket, and it stands as a unique contrast to current-day free agent maneuverings. Brown details all of this in a clear, matter-of-fact style that becomes this type of history.
Having read all three of these books, the authors trade the immediacy of the Web post for printed quality of various shelflife. Given that a price increase comes with such a change in medium (from $0 to about $15), each must overcome the convenience of an easy-to-find browser bookmark. The key, it turns out, is what makes for any time of good writing: quality thoughts, organized well, that you can’t find anywhere else. The rest is just a change in word count.