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)
New York: Little, Brown and Company
ASIN: B00FORA1TO (Kindle edition)
Scanned version available on-line at psu.edu