An Interview with Glenn Stout
“I worry that even though the online reaches everywhere, and even though anybody can blog, that it is harder for quality to be seen and read amid all the white noise. It seems that everyone is either famous or unknown, and there seems to be no well-defined track for writers to move up through the ranks anymore and learn their craft. This kind of compression squeezes good people out, and in the long run, isn’t good for the field.”
“But here’s the thing – no one and no thing has ever been able to keep people from writing and breaking through. Despite all this – perhaps in spite of all this – committed writers of talent keep writing their asses off and do great work. And if you do great work, I believe it eventually gets found. My job is to find it for BASW. That’s the goal anyway.”
“I select as if I am a reader. All I’ve ever looked for are stories that, after reading them once, I want to read again.”
Position: Series Editor, Best American Sports Writing; author and editor of numerous books
Born: 1958, Columbus, Ohio. Raised in Amlin, Ohio.
Education: Bard College, 1981, B.A. in creative writing (poetry); Simmons College, 1987, M.S. library and information science.
Career: construction worker, painter, security guard, library aide, 1978-1984; library aide and librarian, Boston Public Library, 1984 –1993; Best American Sports Writing 1991 – “Didn’t do anything you think a librarian does, but that’s where all the books were. I started freelancing in 1986 and have not been without an assignment ever since. I have been writing fulltime since 1993 and have now written ghostwritten or edited more than seventy-five titles, including Red Sox Century and Nine Months at Ground Zero. My next book is Young Woman and the Sea.”
Personal: married, one daughter.
Favorite restaurant (home): Wits’ End, Hemmingford, Quebec. “I live on Lake Champlain in northwestern Vermont and it’s only about twenty miles away. Guinness and the continent’s best fish ‘n chips.”
Favorite restaurant (away): “Don’t have one, but Guinness on the menu helps.”
Favorite hotel: “I generally don’t generally travel very much as part of my job, but I built a small cabin I consider BASW World Headquarters in the swamp behind my house just off the lake. Does that count?”
Glenn Stout, excerpted from the introduction to “Everything They Had: Sports Writing from David Halberstam”:
A number of great American writers were, at one time or another, sportswriters, ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, James Reston, and Richard Ford. What is unique, however, is that David Halberstam, while moving beyond sports, did not, I think, move past sports. While he never elevated sports out of proportion, sports never ceased to be important to him and he never cast sports aside as insignificant, once writing that “I do not know of any other venue that showcases the changes in American life and its values and the coming of the norms of entertainment more dramatically than sports.
Q. Do you agree with what Halberstam wrote of sports? Or was that an aficionado, in fact, elevating sports out of proportion?
A. I think that what he meant was that sports was one of only a few venues that has the reach in our society, and in our common conversation, to make those changes visible and intelligible to a great number of people. Halberstam was wise enough to see that. Another writer might have selected some other setting in which to make a similar argument, but I can’t think of anything else that has the same coherent reach as sports. After all, the only two things you can talk to a stranger about are the weather and sports.
I think the significance he attached to sports, both in the larger sense and individually, was about right. He wrote a post 9/11 essay reprinted in the book entitled “Sports Can Distract, but They Don’t Heal” that makes it clear that he certainly felt there were limitation to the role sports should play in our lives. Yet I think he also recognized that to each of us as individuals, our personal attachments to sports, either as participants or as fans, can often appear elevated from the outside, and that was even the case in his own life. His stories about fishing and being a football fans are, in a sense, out of proportion, just as is the attachment most “fans” have to sports.
He didn’t view his personal connections to sport from an academic or overtly intellectual perspective, but emotionally. And although as the quote you cited indicates he saw sports as lens that occasionally illuminated changes in our society and culture, that didn’t mean he always sought out the larger meaning in sports. When he wrote about fishing or watching football, it was because valued the way sports connected him to other people more than anything else. That’s what I particularly enjoyed about editing “Everything They Had”. You get to know Halberstam as a person in that book in a way you do not in his other work.
Q. Halberstam had a romantic view of sports and athletes, broadly speaking. Is his body of sports work conspicuous for lack of a critical investigative effort?
A. Not in a way that diminishes his work. He made it very clear that he considered his sports books and sports writing to be a different kind of work than his books on history, society and politics. They were entertainments, breaks between work he considered to be more rigorous, and intentionally different in tone and subject. I think his sports books and articles were akin to the short stories, profiles or poems a novelist might write between novels.
I write across various genres and to different audiences and I know that I approach each somewhat differently. I think Halberstam was making a conscious decision not to be overtly investigative when he wrote about sports. I’m guessing, but I don’t think he wanted to strip sports of the obvious enjoyment he took from it.
But that does not mean that he turned his back on larger issues or didn’t emphasize reporting when he wrote about sports – he was always a rigorous reporter, no matter what he was writing about. While his shorter sports stories, in particular, may not be investigative in the purest sense, books like the “October 1964” and “The Breaks of the Game”, are investigative in their approach – they reveal some essential knowledge of their subject that few other books approach. Halberstam was a smart guy – obviously. He understood and had the confidence to write each story and each book within it owns borders and not try to write in the same shape and tone every time out. I mean, “The Teammates” and “The Best and the Brightest” have radically different intentions. His approach in each was, I think, completely appropriate to the subject.
Q. Can you describe the process of selection for BASW? Numbers and types of submissions? Your role vis-à-vis the guest editor?
A. My primary role is to provide material to facilitate the selection process, and to give advice to my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in regard to who we should consider as guest editor. I am adamant that it should be someone who is known for their writing first, and has shown an ability to write about a variety of sports.
Every year I send out a letter and ask hundreds of newspaper and magazine editors for submissions and/or, in the case with magazines, guest subscriptions. And in the foreword of the book I always invite writers and readers to submit work they feel is worthy of inclusion, and I try to make it clear that I don’t attach any stigma to a writer who submits his or her own work. The same instructions also appear on my website, glennstout.net. Really, and I try to make this absolutely clear, if I never read a story, I can’t select it, so I really don’t care how a particular story gets brought to my attention, or who brings it to my attention, as long as it does. My only frustration is that after eighteen years I still get the feeling that writers, editors and readers are not quite as forthcoming with suggestions and submissions as I would hope.
Nevertheless this still generally results in a hundred or more magazine subscriptions and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of submissions from either writers or their editors, particularly at the end of the year. I also troll around quite a bit on the internet, and receive submissions from quite a few online venues as well, and occasionally spend time in libraries looking at magazines I either don’t get in the mail or who do not send me anything. One way or another thousands and thousands of stories pass by my eyes each year, and now I have the bifocals to prove it.
I would guess that probably 80-90% of the works submitted are, roughly speaking, features and profiles or essays, as opposed to columns and game stories. Somewhat more than half come from newspapers, but that is offset by the magazine subscriptions I receive or read on my own.
My job is to pick approximately 75 stories or so that I forward to the guest editor a few weeks after the February deadline. As I make my selections I don’t worry about balance between different sports, sources or story type. If I pick the best stuff those questions will work themselves out. I even pick a few stories along the way that I personally don’t like but understand that someone else may have an opposite reaction.
The guest editor makes the final selection of the 25 or so stories to make the book, but is always welcome and encouraged to include material not submitted by me. Some, like David Halberstam, Bill Littlefield, Bill Nack and a few others have aggressively solicited my opinion and input during the selection process. Some have not. That is entirely their prerogative.
Q. Characteristics of a BASW selection? When you come across a worthy piece, how do you know it?
A. The best work announces itself pretty quickly – one example of that, I think, was J.R. Moehringer’s story “Resurrecting the Champ.” I wasn’t at all familiar with Moehringer at the time but the lead was so good I just knew the story would be terrific – it felt like a part of something much larger, which it was. I didn’t even read it all the way through before I submitted it to the guest editor.
I had a similar experience the first time I read Bill Nack’s “Pure Heart,” about the death of Secretariat. In the opening scene the vet discussed the physical size of the horses’ heart, provided a similar experience. As for the stories that don’t make the book – well, I usually recognize those in the first graph or two. If the lede fails terribly, I can’t expect a reader to keep reading and hope it gets better. Sometimes, if I read a lede and like it, I’ll skip directly to the end, to see if that holds up. I try to think like a reader in the bookstore who may pick the book up, flip it open to a story, and maybe read two facing pages – the end of one story and the beginning of another. If they don’t like what they read, they put the book down and walk away. Obviously, I don’t want them to do that.
I’ve never been able to come up with a criterion for selection that’s very complicated, and I gave up trying to do so a long time ago. I select as if I am a reader. All I’ve ever looked for are stories that, after reading them once, I want to read again. I usually read just about everything when it first arrives, and those stories I want to read again go in one pile that I save and all the others go in a much larger pile that I take to the town transfer station every Saturday. As the deadline approaches and then passes, I go through that pile I’ve saved over and over again until I’ve winnowed it down to about seventy-five stories. Then I start all over again.
After eighteen years the process is like the M.C. Escher drawing “Relativity,” the one that shows people simultaneously climbing both up and down the stairs in a loop. That’s me. This process never ends.
Q. Have bloggers cracked BASW? Do you envision that happening?
A. Oh yeah, Derek Zumsteg did in 2007, with a story from the Seattle Mariners website ussmariner.com. He analyzed the “Baseball Bugs” Warner Brothers cartoon as if it were a real event. Great stuff, and utterly, completely and entirely original.
I’m sure it will happen again, although the problem with many blogs is that since there are no space restrictions, and publishing is often instantaneous, very little editing taking place, particularly self-editing by the author. So the work can tend to meander around too much, and lack shape, or reach “print” with a glaring mistake. Obviously, too, I can’t read every blog post either, so to consider work from a blog the author has to be pro-active, print it out and send it to me. I’m not sure why, as I make it clear that I welcome online material, but although I regularly receive submissions from commercial online outlets very few “bloggers” have bothered to submit work to me.
Q. You wrote about the difference between sportswriting and writing of sports. Can you explain?
A. The first decision I made in regard to the book was to suggest we call it The Best American Sports Writing, two words, rather than The Best American Sportswriting, compound word. Sportswriting, I think, is more constrained and makes the reader think in terms of the newspaper only, writing primarily about the daily event. Given the fact that the book can appear almost two years after some of the stories inside were written, the book had to be more wide open than that, to allow for writing that was about sports outside of daily journalism.
There is simply more room to write when sports is an adjective to a noun and not the noun itself. Similarly, I use the widest possible definition of sports. I suspect at one time or another virtually every reader of the book has read something and said, “I don’t think that’s a sport.” That’s okay, because I hope the writing is good enough that they still enjoyed the experience, and if I tried to confine the definition, we’d miss out on a great deal of terrific writing. My ideal BASW story would be about a subject the reader knows nothing about, written by a writer they’ve never heard of, from a publication they have never read before.
Q. How good is sports journalism today in a historical context? How has it been affected by the decline of print, and the rise of Internet publishing?
A. You know, as a literary genre sports writing – and sportswriting – is a very young field. You can hardly identify it at all before about 1880. In most of my other work – authoring big survey history books of the Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs, writing dozens of articles on sports history and editing some historical anthologies, I have read a tremendous amount of period sports writing – more, I’d wager, than just about anyone else alive.
The very best work today is, I think, better than most of the best work of thirty, or forty or fifty years ago, and far, far better than the vast bulk of work before the World War II. Writers today are more creative and have more instruments at their disposal, as well as a wider viewpoint. It is also not just the sole domain of white guys anymore, and the entry of more minority writers and female writers into the field has strengthened it immeasurably.
But the average, run-of-the-mill work – the stuff I send to the transfer station – has not improved that much. Day to day, I find far too much writing that lacks style, or else tries to substitute cleverness for style. Too much is either too dry or edited into paste and completely style-less, or a series of one note jokes pounded over and over again, writing that apes sports talk radio.
This series started at an interesting time, 1990, just before both the online explosion and the cable/satellite TV explosion. There is no question that we are in a transition, and that as the online and electronic reach expands, the print world narrows. When this series started there were at least fifty Sunday supplement magazines. They were a terrific source for stories that didn’t fit the sports page, a place for writers to grow and experiment, as well as a significant freelance market. Almost all are gone now, and many of those stories simply don’t get written anymore.
I worry that even though the online reaches everywhere, and even though anybody can blog, that it is harder for quality to be seen and read amid all the white noise. It seems that everyone is either famous or unknown, and there seems to be no well defined track for writers to move up through the ranks anymore and learn their craft. This kind of compression squeezes good people out, and in the long run, isn’t good for the field.
But here’s the thing – no one and no thing has ever been able to keep people from writing and breaking through. Despite all this – perhaps in spite of all this – committed writers of talent keep writing their asses off and do great work. And if you do great work, I believe it eventually gets found. My job is to find it for BASW. That’s the goal anyway.
Q. Five BASW pieces that should be on every bathroom shelf?
A. I’ve often thought the entire book should have a hole perforated in the corner to facilitate being hung in the bathroom, because I suspect that’s where it gets read. I’ll leave aside both the Nack and Moehringer stories I’ve already mentioned, but would otherwise be on the list, and a few more that probably should be on there are in BASW of the Century. Here goes, but if you asked me tomorrow I might make different selections.
Bill Plaschke. “Her Blue Haven”, a profile of a Dodgers fan.
Charlie Pierce. “The Man, Amen”, Pierce’s infamous story on Tiger Woods.
Gary Smith. “Shadow of a Nation”, about Native American cross country runners.
Paul Solotaroff. “The Power and the Gory”, a cautionary tale about steroid use by a body builder.
Florence Shinkle. “Fly Away Home”. A very quiet story about pigeon racing, a subject I knew nothing about, by a writer I’d never heard of. I think its tone fits her subject precisely. Her editor hated it; David Halberstam and I loved it.
Q. You are named editor of the All-Time Greatest Sports Staff? You get 10 hires. Who are they and why?
A. There are probably a hundred names I could select and not go wrong. I hope you understand that I don’t feel that it is appropriate for me to include anyone still writing – in my position I cannot and do not play favorites. So I’ll confine this primarily to the giants we stand on today, a list that is quite a bit more pale and includes more testosterone than if I were to include contemporary authors:
Ring Lardner, for his ear for the language, and because there are very few writers ever who I have found funnier. It is a real pity no one has ever collected his newspaper sports writing.
W. C. Heinz for the music of his work and the big heart that comes through it. As I wrote in the foreword to this years’ volume, I think part of BASW starts with me reading Heinz in the old Best Sports Stories collections when I was a kid.
A.J. Leibling. If for no other reason that the line he wrote about the younger writers of his generation, about whom he complained did their work and then ran home to “wife and baby” instead of, as he put it, sitting at the saloon and “soaking up information” like they should.
Red Smith because I still think he’s the best sports columnist we’ve ever had. Some people in newspapers complain to me that we never reprint enough columns in BASW. Well, that’s because not many are writing them very well – too many columns today are just brief anthologies of one-liners.
Wendell Smith, because advocacy journalism sometimes has a place. The work he and other African American sports writers did to put pressure on baseball to break the color line deserve our lasting gratitude.
David Halberstam, for his example as a reporter and for his generosity to young writers.
Harold Kaese. A bit of a sentimental choice. Kaese, who won the Spink award in 1976, wrote for the Globe for more than forty years, was a pioneer in the accumulation and use of baseball statistics as well as a terrific writer. When I worked at the Boston Public Library I pored over his archive, which gave me a crash course on not only Boston sports history, but on the life of a sportswriter.
Frederick P. O’Connell. This little known writer for the Boston Post died in 1907, before age thirty. But he was extraordinarily good for the era – the best of his work reads as if it were written today.
Shelby Strother. I encountered Strother, of the Detroit News, while editing the first edition of BASW, and only learned that he had passed away when I tried to contract him to inform him of his selection. He was really good, and, like Wells Twombley, another great writer who died too young, should not be forgotten.
Frank MacDonnell. A personal pick. He was sports editor of the Detroit Times in the 1930s and my wife’s grandfather. He took her mother out of school to meet Babe Ruth once and died young, in 1941. I have his BBWA wallet and press card and would have liked to have met him.
Glenn Stout, excerpted from the foreword to Best American Sports Writing 2007:
One writer I know recently left one high-profile writing job for another. In this person’s former position, I usually knew within a sentence or two who I was reading. But now, in the new job, each story reads just like every other story in the same publication. The writer’s style – presumably one of the reasons this person hired in the first place – is nowhere to be found.
I have since learned why. Many stories my acquaintance files are edited, not just once or twice by one or two people, but up to five or six times by a like number of editors. Machine-readable text is so easily manipulated that each editor makes change upon change upon change upon change. And each time the story is passed down the assembly line it becomes a little less distinctive and a little safer and a little more bland, until it is finally spit out upon the published page the precise same shade of gray as everything else that goes through that process. On occasion my friend show me the original copy. It is often just that, original. After comparing the original to the final product, I have sometimes wondered why the publication even bothers to include my friend’s byline. A more accurate attribution would read simply “By Just About Anybody”.
As anyone in the newspaper or magazine industry knows, these are perilous times. Print circulation is shrinking as more and more readers dive en masse into the great online sea. While reading online is, in a sense, cheaper and easier, I don’t think that’s the only reason more and more readers are doing it. I think some of it has to do with the fact that, at least to my eyes and ears, much of the material online isn’t over-edited like so much print-based writing is. Yes, lack of editing can and does result in writing that is awkward, sloppy, fatuous and indulgent – the verbal equivalent of any American Idol tryout – but sometimes it is also more lively, distinctive and ambitious.
I am not arguing that there should be no editors (well, I do know of one the world could do without), but in the wrong hands a word processor can be a dangerous, dangerous thing. If I were in charge, there would certainly be fewer editors, and most would be encouraged to take a lot of time off. Editing done for any reason other than space, accuracy, and basic clarity is pretty much guaranteed to kill any chance of authentic communication. As I prepare this book each year I read hundreds of stories that I suspect may once have been memorable but were edited into paste…”
(SMG thanks Glenn Stout for his cooperation)