Why Are Great Sports Novels Like 'The Art of Fielding' So Rare?

Chad Harbach's new book offers unusually good insight into the mind of an athlete.

Jorge Silva / Reuters

For many boys born in the latter half of the 20th century, the greatest writer who ever lived was a man named Matt Christopher. Raised in Bath, Pennsylvania, Christopher was the oldest of nine children and a minor league baseball player and the author of more than 130 books with titles like The Catcher with the Glass Arm, The Great Quarterback Switch, and The Kid Who Only Hit Homers. These were books about sports, written for boys who weren't particularly good at sports but were open to dreaming that, one day, they might be.

Of course, those boys have grown up to be men, most of whom are employed in careers other than Professional Athlete, and many of whom no longer read books at all. A 2007 poll found that a third of all men had read no books in the previous year. For the two-thirds who did, chances are not good that they read a novel about sports, as they once spent summer afternoons doing. There are several reasons for this. One is that men don't read fiction. Another is that novelists don't write about sports.

Enter "best sports novels" into Google, and the Internet offers a number of lists—five, ten, a hundred titles long—documenting the greatest sports "novels" of all time. But almost none of the books are novels. They are works of non-fiction, often artfully done—Friday Night Lights, Paper Lion, The Breaks of the Game—but not fiction. In 2002, Sports Illustrated listed the 100 Greatest Sports Books of All Time. Of those, fewer than 20 were novels. Of those, only half a dozen were books that could be considered—forgive me in advance—"serious" fiction.

Little, Brown

Last month, the same magazine ran an excerpt from The Art of Fielding, a new novel by Chad Harbach that debuted at No. 6 on the New York Times bestseller list. Fielding is not, like Don DeLillo's Underworld or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a book involving sports but about something wholly different. It is a book that is very much of and about the world of athletics, specifically baseball, and more specifically a Division III collegiate baseball team and its shortstop, Henry Skrimshander. Well over half of the book takes place on diamonds, in locker rooms, at practice. "Harbach turns a double play that would make Skrimshander and [Philip] Roth proud," Sports Illustrated said, in introducing the excerpt. "The book will knock out baseball and literature fans alike."

Henry is a high school phenom who doesn't know he's a phenom and soon becomes, as a member of the Westish College Harpooners, a college phenom. He arrives at Westish shy, naïve, and not especially gifted with a baseball bat. His skills are in the field. "Putting Henry at shortstop," Harbach writes. "Was like taking a painting that had been shoved in a closet and hanging it in the ideal spot." By his junior year, scouts have pegged Henry as one of the top prospects in the country. But decline is always more fascinating than success, especially the bodily decline of sport. The plot here turns, then, upon on errant throw, loosed by Henry, that strikes a friend in the head. Henry is suddenly stricken with Steve Blass Disease, named for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who forgot how to throw a baseball. "That was what made the story epic," Mike Schwartz, Henry's mentor and Westish's catcher, thinks. "The player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph." The question: What do you do when the thing you're best at, the one thing you truly love, suddenly causes you the most pain?

Harbach is not the first to explore this idea, and also not the first to do it through sport. "I once did something right," Harry Angstrom says in John Updike's Rabbit, Run. "I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you're first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate." Updike was a sports fan, as many fiction writers, and their subjects, have been. Jay Gatsby is embroiled, loosely, in the 1919 World Series scandal, bullfights break out throughout Hemingway's work, and Moby-Dick—a significant presence in The Art of Fielding (Westish has a Melville statue on campus)—is, in the end, just a story about deep-sea hunting. And, of course, Matt Christopher's dog threw that no-hitter.

And yet sports are relatively underrepresented in the fiction pantheon, and will perhaps always be treated as a diversion, no matter the heavy literary names that are attached. "I was surprised that my friend had spent five years working on something so insubstantial," Keith Gessen, Harbach's friend and co-editor of the literary magazine n+1, said of his initial reaction to The Art of Fielding. (His opinion shifted, he said, after subsequent edits.) Harbach acknowledges the literary world's anti-sports snobbery, and pushes back against it: "There is an argument, that the American postmodern era began in the spring of 1973, when Steve Blass forgot how to throw a baseball," he writes in Fielding, lest we forget that his baseball book is a "serious" intellectual endeavor.

But I was struck by how effective the sports team was as both a plot and literary device. Baseball—and most good sports novels are about baseball—lends itself especially well. It is a team game, affording authors the ability to explore relationships between teammates, coaches, and opponents. But it also a game with extreme moments of aloneness: individual triumph and individual failure are what we remember. Harbach was a middle infielder, like Henry, but his career ended in high school. He claims to have done only a small bit of research for the book, but to my ear—one that has, admittedly, never heard the sounds of a Division III baseball locker room—Fielding rings true. (Gessen's own debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, was a story about the pursuit of a literary career. In short, the story was his own.) Here's Schwartz, giving the last pregame speech of his career:

Schwartz cast his gaze around the circle one more time. What came back was something beyond confidence, a sense that the game might as well already have happened. He didn't know if he was ready to play—his mind was elsewhere, sleepless and scattered and sentimental—but they sure were. If he was the Ahab of this operation, this tournament the target of his mania, then they were Fedallah's secret crew.

"You guys," he said softly, the respect in his voice legit, "are some scary motherfuckers."

Nobody even smiled at this, much less laughed; they just nodded and took the field.

Take that, Coach Taylor. And how about this, for a description of an athlete's life: "The cartilage in his knees was torn to shreds, the result of too many hours behind home plate, too many sets of squats with too much weight, the bar bowed over his shoulders like a comma." This squat was a pause not an ending. There would be many more sets, just like this one. The beauty, of course, is whether or not Harbach has accurately captured the world of small-college baseball hardly matters. We are in the realm of fiction, and baseball fanatics will never be completely satisfied. Writing to Bernard Malamud, upon the publication of his novel The Natural, Saul Bellow proclaimed that, "The baseball experts landing on your 'natural' with both feet, are … sinners against imagination."

If All the King's Men offers insight into the mind of a politician and To Kill a Mockingbird into the lives of lawyers, what, then, can a book about sports tell us about athletes? More, perhaps, than the non-fiction we read. David Foster Wallace is most cherished, by sports fans, for his writing on Roger Federer. But my favorite Wallace piece is one on Tracy Austin, written in 1994 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Because I am a long-time rabid fan of tennis in general and Tracy Austin in particular, I've rarely looked forward to reading a sports memoir the way I looked forward to Ms. Austin's Beyond Center Court: My Story," Wallace wrote. He was disappointed. "The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all."

This is a not a stereotyping of athletic stupidity, but, as Wallace explains, a celebration of a unique sort of genius. Being a top athlete is such a physical, instinctual act, that it is one that its actors struggle to consider, and, indeed, deliberate on only at their own peril. ("Why, in Henry's experience, was a question an athlete shouldn't ask.") "It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied," Wallace went on. "And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence."

The value of the sports novel, then, is to explain not only to fans, but also to athletes themselves, just what the heck is going on inside their heads. Athleticism is a level of human performance so misunderstood by those who partake in it, that it begs for our best fictionalists to explore. "For Schwartz, this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport," Harbach writes. "You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition." When Harbach, a middling athlete like the rest of us, is inside Henry's or Schwartz's head, it may be the closest we get to understanding the strange complexity of athleticism. "Those who cannot do, coach," Schwartz says at a moment of extreme self-doubt. And those who cannot coach, I suppose, should write.