Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Making Writers, not Baseball Players

Bill James, a baseball historian and statistician, writes an intriguing piece for Slate Magazine in which he poses the question: Why is our society so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?

Here are his reasons:
  • First, we give [athletes] the opportunity to compete at a young age.
  • Second, we recognize and identify [athletic] 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 [athletes] for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.
And what do we do for young writers?

Not much.

Oh, I participated in a Young Authors’ contest when I was a third grader. Won third place in the state. And you know what? That little recognition alone still spurs me along to want to be a writer.

I look at my oldest son, who has an affinity for writing and drawing his own comics, just at age 11. I’ve heard some of his peers comment on what he draws, but I’m doubtful there’s much encouragement from adults at school, given that at this elementary age art is kind of a sideline to more basic subjects – he won’t have a public school opportunity to take art classes until he’s in junior high.

So we provide him with lots of paper and pencils, I let him pore through my comic books as much as he wants, and I’ve started a blog where I share his and his siblings’ art with the world. Hopefully, that helps.

Is he talented? I think so. But will society in general provide outlets for his talent in ways that encourage his development into an even greater talent? I have my doubts – the same way I have my doubts that society is really gunning for me to become a novelist.

James knows why:
There are people who believe that when baseball leagues ex­pand, this leads inevitably to a decline in the quality of talent. In my view, this is preposterous. Talent—like stupidity—lies all around us in great heaps: talent that is undeveloped because of a shortage of opportunity, talent that is undeveloped because of laziness and inertia, talent that is undeveloped because there is no genuine need for it. When baseball leagues expand, that simply creates a need for more talent, which creates more opportunity, which leads—in a soci­ety like ours, which is brilliant at developing athletic ability—in very quick order to the development of more players.

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.
That’s what I hear time and time and time and time again in the writers’ world: Maybe in 25 or 30 years, you’ll be good enough for the recognition. And the reward. Until then, well, bub, yabothahmee.

And the publishing world wonders why so many young writers are turning to self-publishing, to ebooks, to any which way they can get their writing out there and read before they’re too old and withered to enjoy it?

Yeah, maybe this approach leads to a talent of pool akin to the Platte – a mile wide at the mouth yet only an inch deep. But as James points out, there will be – will be – greats among them. Greats who can move a lot of pulp and greats who can sear the human soul with what they write.

There used to be outlets for the young writer, of course. Ray Bradbury found his in the multiplicity of pulp science fiction magazines out there in his day. I found an outlet in the now defunct Silver Valley Voice, a small literary magazine distributed at bus stations and in alley kiosks in the Idaho panhandle when I was attending the University of Idaho.

But try to submit, say, to the literary journal at the U of I or to such outlets as Utah’s Sugar House Review and you’ll find that there’s room for developing talent, but so little room as to leave the lesser developed out in the cold without anyone to talk to.

And no light verse. No, no, we can’t have that. Only serious poets need apply.

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