David Foster Wallace, How Tracy Austin broke my heart (#Review)

Many readers here, I know, are not the slightest bit interested in sports. You know who you are and I’m not going to out you, but you are welcome to do so in the comments. Meanwhile, this is for the rest of you who enjoy watching sports. For me, watching sports aligns well with being a reader, because sport is all story.

What I mean by this is that a sports event has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is full of character and characters. There’s also setting, and there are themes. Some relate to the characters. Are they the underdog, a star on the rise, someone coming back, an oldie having one last go, the bad boy? But, there can be darker themes too to do with politics, social justice, economics, and so on. I don’t need to elaborate them here.

As a lover and supporter of the arts, however, I certainly appreciate that sport can get more than its fair share of attention and money, but that’s not so much the fault of sport, itself. In the best of all possible worlds all forms of human endeavour deserve support and recognition. Enough, though, of my justification … on to David Foster Wallace.

American author David Foster Wallace was a person of wide interests, one being tennis. Several years ago I posted on his essay “Federer as religious experience”. That essay was very different to this one, but its approach is similar in that Wallace takes us on a journey, as he thinks through the issue in front of him. For this reason, I’m going to re-use a quote I used in my previous post. It’s from Best American essays editor, Robert Atwan, who defines the best essays as being

deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

Wallace commences his essay by describing his love of tennis and, in particular, of child tennis star Tracy Austin who was born the same year he was. He consequently looked even more forward than usual to reading her sports-memoir. He’s self-deprecating about buying these mass-market books, ‘the sports-star-“with”-somebody autobiography’, saying that he usually hides them “under something more highbrow when I get to the register”.

Unfortunately, Austin’s “breathtakingly insipid autobiography”, being full of cliches and platitudes, might have broken his love of the genre. However, he decides to explore it to see if it might “help us understand both the seduction and the disappointment that seem to be built into the mass-market sports memoir”. He works through the issues, exploring our expectations of them, and why they might compel us. Unlike Wallace, I have never gravitated to these sorts of memoirs, but I can relate to some of the reasons he gives. These athletes are beautiful and inspiring. They make, in fact, “a certain type of genius as carnally discernible as it ever can get”.

So, we want to know them – who they are, how they did it, and how “it feels inside, to be both beautiful and best”. These memoirs, “explicitly or not … make a promise—to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses”. But, the problem is, they “rarely deliver”.

He uses Austin’s trajectory to exemplify all this, and discusses why her ghostwritten book fails. It’s not only because it is poorly written. It forgets it’s for the reader. Rather, its “primary allegiance” seems to be “family and friends”, with “whole pages … given over to numbing Academy Award-style tributes to parents, siblings, coaches, trainers, and agents, plus little burbles of praise for pretty much every athlete and celebrity she’s ever met”. It also wallows in the cliches, stereotypes and myths that we’d actually hoped it would break open for us. It’s not that we are looking for “dirt”, but we want insight. The only insights we get in Austin’s memoir, Wallace shows, are unwitting ones where she naively exhibits her lack of awareness of reality, such as her protestation that her mother “did not force” her to play tennis at 3. What three-year-old has free choice? There are other, scarier, examples of naïveté, stories that an aware memoirist would tease out from the position of wisdom gained from experience.

There is also what Wallace describes as the Greek-like tragedy of Austin’s career, the fact that her “conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success, turned out to be also her flaw and bane”. This too is not grappled with in the memoir. The book could have helped expose “the sports myth’s dark side”.

But then, in a very Wallace-ish way, he starts to turn his analysis around. He notes that this “air of robotic banality suffuses not only the sports-memoir genre but also the media rituals” in which top athletes are asked to explain their “techne” in those post-contest interviews. With the Australian Open just over, and the Winter Olympics on, I’m sure you know what he means. We get no insights, just “I stuck to the plan” or “focused on one point at time”, etc.

From here, Wallace starts to look at the issue from a different angle. He can’t believe, given what they achieve, that these athletes are as vapid as they come across. Maybe they achieve the heights they do because these “one ball at a time” cliches are true, that what goes through the athlete’s mind as they stand ready to serve, make the pass, whatever, is, in fact “nothing at all”.

When Tracy Austin accepts the car crash that ended her come-back attempt with “I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it”, maybe this is true:

Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there’s nothing she can do about something bad and so she’d better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound, enlightened in the childlike way some saints and monks are enlightened?

This is, for me, the real mystery—whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither. The only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir.

Maybe, he continues, it is only spectators who are not divinely gifted athletes who can “truly … see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied” while those with the gift are “dumb and blind about it”. Maybe this blindness and dumbness are not the price of the gift but its essence. I see an element of truth here, but the question is, where does this blindness start and end.

David Foster Wallace
“How Tracy Austin broke my heart” (1994)
in Consider the lobster and other stories
New York: Little, Brown and Company
pp. 164-181
ASIN: B00FORA1TO (Kindle edition)

Scanned version available on-line at psu.edu

43 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace, How Tracy Austin broke my heart (#Review)

  1. I used to love sport, though not so much any more, but I have never believed sports men and women were interesting people. No doubt some were/are but not because they excel at sport.
    I cannot imagine what Wallace expected to learn.
    I understand there are some good cricket books but that is only because some cricket followers are very good writers, not because Shane Warne or Pat Cummings or any other cricketer is intrinsically interesting.

    • Thanks Bill. I think he wanted to understand their genius, and also just the human story… Her reflections of what happened to her and how she really felt about that.

      Yes I think the best writing about sport is probably by followers, like Wallace, like I believe Gideon Haigh on cricket? But it’s always from the observer perspective.

  2. Interesting this particular review should be published on the great hallowed day of the US Super Bowl. Sigh. Addressing your point, I have found that the greatest business people know very little about anything outside their field – but most will be watching the Super Bowl today – lol. (Interesting review – thanks)

  3. This is fascinating. I work with ghostwriters, including those who write for sportspeople, and I also read sports memoirs (though I’m fussy about checking if they thank their ghostwriters!). I know what terrible material some of them start with and how controlling the star can be, but they do still manage to make a good book out of it most of the time!

    • Thanks for this insight Liz. Must say I did wonder about the ghost writer. Did she tear her hair out with the responses to questions? Did Austen write it and she tidy it up? Or was it done by her interviewing Austin over a period of time?

  4. Ah, DFW, writer of my most-quoted statement about politics: brilliant bloke whose depressive nature rose up and extinguished him, along with a noose .. He is someone who makes me glad I was never going to be exceptional; for people of that ilk so often find it too hard to live and, blindly, cease to.
    This is a deeply thought essay, ST, and an equally so review. Well done you ! – and thanks.

    • Thanks M-R. Yes I nearly included a comment about his own angst in my post, and then thought it would have been me suggesting some conclusion about his own conclusions and ideas that may not have been right… So I didn’t. But yes, I agree with you about being exceptional or my children being so. Much rather they be content (as much as you can be) people.

  5. Jus because I’m curious: was this Tracy Austin alive to read this essay? I’m sure sports stars have to be resilient, but it must have been hurtful to read this…

    • “this Tracy Austin”. LOL. I’m showing my age. Tracy Austin is still alive and kicking. She was a child prodigy as a tennis player, but her later career was married by injury. I always had the suspicion that she was allowed to play professional tennis too young, before she was fully developed. Perhaps if she had been held back a few years she would have dodged the injuries and had a much more sustained career. I can’t imagine she was thrilled with the essay.

      • I agree with you Neil. I can’t help thinking that many athletes who start young suffer injuries – often career-ending – because their bodies aren’t fully mature and just aren’t up to it. (And, in some cases it’s not bodies that weren’t ready but minds and their emotional maturity.)

        Anyhow, she probably didn’t like this, but see my response to Lisa!

      • LOL Neil, you are talking to someone with a sporting bypass. (See Sue’s tactful allusion to this in her intro.) I barely know the names of Australian tennis players, much less those from anywhere else.

        • Lisa, I used to be a cricket tragic. When Australia was over in England, when I was in my teens, I used to go to bed with an earpiece in, listening to the cricket on my (homemade) crystal set. I developed the ability to wake up, hear the score, and promptly fall back asleep. These days are long gone. When the Australian captain stood down at the start of the season over a sexting scandal, I only vaguely knew he was a cricketer, and was shocked to hear he had been captain for four years. But then sexting wasn’t a problem when I was in my teens 😂

    • Yes, she was, Lisa, and I thought that too. I guess this is what criticism is about.

      However, it was hard to write this, because he’s not saying that she and other athletes are “dumb” as people. Indeed he says they can’t be, but he says that to do their sport they empty their minds. In fact, one Australian athlete last night, when asked what was going through her head at the beginning of her silver medal run, said “nothing really”! Just as I was writing my post! I think Wallace’s point is that they are not going to be insightful about what they do. Wallace’s essays do tend to follow a trajectory that you have to read closely (at least I do).

      • I hear you… but I recently had a conversation about the fact that I hadn’t critiqued a Holocaust memoir as rigorously as the author would have liked. My response is that I never critique Holocaust memoirs in terms of style etc because they are written from the heart and I just don’t think it’s appropriate. Often they are not great literature but we don’t expect them to be.
        Successful sportspeople are not in the same category, but, well, one can only hope she didn’t see this essay!

        • I completely understand what you are saying Lisa. I feel pretty much the same, particularly about memoirs that involve deep suffering. As you say, the story and heart and message are the important things.

          My point about criticism doesn’t really contradict this, I think. It just says that we are not, really, professional critics.

  6. There is an expression in baseball, “thinking is stinking”. A second baseman on the New York Yankees suddenly lost the ability to throw accurately to first base, and it was assumed that at some point he began think about how to do it and turned an occasional difficulty into a chronic one.

    But I think professional athletes who grow up to make interesting observations about sports, life, etc., do so against the odds. The amount of time they put into training leaves little time for anything else. The American sportswriter Art Hill said that in many years of covering sports he had never met an intellectual in the locker room. Someone more recently said that the only reading matter he had seen in a season of covering a team was magazines featuring women, cars, or guns, and now and then a Bible.

    Would I read athletes’ ghostwritten memoirs? I did when young, mostly I think in copies bought by my brother: Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay (football, written with Dick Schaap), something by Walt Frazier (basketball), Bill Bradley’s Life on the Run (basketball). Bradley, by the way, was a Rhodes Scholar, served three terms in the US Senate, and was a plausible though unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2000. I gather that he did write his own books, or some of them.

    There was a stretch of years when Super Bowls were usually quite dull games. I remember a dull Baltimore-Dallas game in the 1970s that led or helped lead to the NFL changing its rules on field goals. At some point I started watching them only if my wife wished to see the halftime show, then if she wished to see the game. Last night we skipped it.

    • This is interesting George. I hadn’t really thought a lot about whether sportspersons are writers or thinkers, but clearly people like you and DFW have! Mostly I’ve thought about whether they are decent human beings, and also how they cope with retirement. DFW’s point re Austin suggested it might be easier than I thought, though there are certainly many stories about those who don’t.

      I’m not surprised about reading matter in team locker rooms! (Though Bibles would probably be VERY rare in Australian locker rooms.)

      Haha re the half-time show. Mr Gums was not interested when he saw its focus, but Son Gums was well aware of what it was going to feature.

  7. Thre are certainly great sports books but really good sports memoirs seem rare, though examples must exist. In the highly corporate world of modern tennis any sort of interiority might be suppressed. I wonder if a sport like mountaineering might be different?

    • Yes, I agree with you about sports books Ian. I’ve read one or two myself. Interesting point about the impact of “corporateness” or, money, on potential for interiority. I think that’s a valid thing to consider. It does seem that behaviour is affected in the highly moneyed sports, so why not thinking too?

  8. Very interesting discussion about sports injuries and thinking skills – writing. Although I’m not even coordinated I come from a family of jocks and have birthed a couple of my own – and then there are the grands. They are a mixed lot – some pretty bright, others kind of dim. They have all had their share of broken body parts though. The sports involved have been football, soccer, skiing, track, bicycling, volleyball, golf, gymnastics, swimming, and ??? – no baseball or skating. When they can’t play (broken arm or something) they do stats and when they grow up they do coaching. I think sports can be a great equalizer over here.

    • That’s a good point Bekah about sports being a great equaliser. I think it can be too, though King Richard – the film – showed how unequal the opportunities are for some to get to the point where it might have that equalising benefit. 0f course that film is set in the 1980s to 1990s, but I don’t imagine things have changed that much?

  9. I’ve read several sports memoirs (all written “with” someone), and even though the people in them are different, they remain stereotypes nonetheless. There’s the good girl, the one who got addicted to drugs and recovered, the one who would like to thank every single teammate because she can’t do anything without them, etc. I will say I have a collection of poetry called Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion by Jeff Parker and Pasha Malla in which each poem is a different sports person. What I mean is the authors took quotes from a famous athlete and put them together like a poem, and the results are amazing. Some folks come off as repetitive and dense, while others nearly speak in poetry to begin with.

    • Haha yes, Melanie, love those stereotypes. But even more, I love the sound of those poems. What a fascinating thing to do and how hard, I think, to pull off but it sounds they’ve done it.

  10. Such an interesting discussion! I think professional athletes, like any other professional, are varied in terms of intelligence and ability to express themselves. Tracy Austin may not have been ok with her career ending, but she may not have had the words or emotional ability to say that. I can imagine someone like Serena Williams would have plenty to say.

    I am by no means close to a professional athlete, but I am an athlete, and I can say that while practicing my sport, there is not much conscious thinking going on. I’ve trained so much my body knows what to do and when and my brain needs to get out of the way, like George mentioned with the baseball player. When people ask me what I think about when I am out on a 160+ km bike ride, I can’t tell them. I can remember that big hill or that tailwind on the flat road, that I saw a flock of turkeys or lots of cows, but what was going on in my head? Nope. If I start thinking I start to sabotage my performance by worrying about how tired I am or how much further I have to go or about some body part hurting. Then I have to counter it by giving myself pep talks and this takes up so much energy. So when athletes say they weren’t thinking about anything, I don’t think they are dumb, it truly is hard to describe that ski run, or that tennis match, etc. 🙂

  11. Thinking of sport like story really makes me think. One of my dearest friends, a reader, an artsy type of woman, “took up” golf (meaning, watching it, contemplating it, on TV-listening mostly) when she was in her ’80s, so I’ve just been hoping that I get “old enough” to “take up” sports in that way too. Heheh

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