Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More Art Crit Lessons from Non-Art Fields... Sports Edition!

As I mentioned in a past post, I've really been enjoying some of the criticism in the Atlantic lately. One recent review that I thought had a surprising amount to say about the practice of criticism in general looks at ... sports reporting! Fun!

In his article "The Enthusiast," Isaac Chotiner analyzes the different journalistic/opinion-style approaches of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann’s now-defunct ESPN show SportsCenter with the columns of Bill Simmons, a popular, Boston-bred writer.

What Chotiner makes clear through his reviews of books by these three commentators are their different approaches to reportage -- Patrick and Olbermann attempt to preserve semi-objective distance, while Simmons revels in amping up his own subjective loves and hates.

For example, in Patrick and Olbermann's book on SportsCenter and how to emulate it, they write,

Do not take sports seriously. Take your work seriously: Be dedicated to it, know everything you need to know about it, enjoy it, remember that the viewer or listener may be fanatical about it—but maintain a healthy distance from it. The moment you think that a sports team or league or player is actually important, you become a servant of the “sports media complex” whose only purpose in being is to separate people from their money. Your dedication has to be to your viewer or listener, to the truth, and, lastly, and only to the degree that it does not conflict with your ethics, to the success of your employer.

Chotiner sums up this ethos as "artfully remain above the fray."

In contrast, Chotiner describes Simmons' approach as follows:

It is written in (usually excellent) conversational prose and sprinkled with digressions, in-jokes, and bawdiness. It is the work of a true fan—an emotional, biased observer who seems to relish his subjectivity. Simmons might be walking the same line that Olbermann and Patrick once trod—the line that separates mathematical formulas from beer jokes (and believe me, the book contains plenty of both). But [Simmons' book on] Basketball is not ironic or dispassionate. And it might just represent the next phase of sports commentary.

This approach could be summed up as "delve into the fray, and own your own place in it."

However, as Chotiner notes, Simmons sometimes becomes irritating, rather than charming, with this approach in his book Now I can Die in Peace.

This is Simmons at his best, but his tics are occasionally irritating. The Sox’ victory “wasn’t just a lucky chain of events,” he writes. "This was like winning the lottery three different times, or better yet, like Justin Timberlake banging Britney Spears, Jessica Biel, Scarlett Johansson, and Cameron Diaz in their primes, only if he had added Lindsay Lohan, Angelina Jolie, and Katie Holmes." These jokes, sprinkled over 700 pages, become wearying. Simmons, at times, would benefit from taking at least a half step backward and sticking to his subject matter.

Um, yeah. Loving that starlet-banging reference! (Wince.)

In terms of my own critical practice, I have to say I strive more towards the (now passé, I guess) attempt-at-maintaining-distance ideals that Patrick and Olbermann suggest.

At the same time, I appreciate that, like Simmons, I have very subjective likes and dislikes that are rooted in where and how I grew up, where and how I studied, etc. I don't have any illusions that my judgments of art are objective. But unlike Simmons, I don't believe that just because I love something others should think that that thing (whether it's the Boston Celtics or a Basquiat canvas) is also the greatest.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the way Chotiner's article teased apart different approaches to a field of reportage and criticism. I think most writers in the art realm to tend to Simmons'"fan-first" approach... even if it's hard for many of us, in art and elsewhere, to match the zest and entertainment with which he delivers that angle.

If you have any preference about critical approach (distance vs. delving into, something that can change whether you're reading or writing too, I think) please feel free to comment.

Image of Sportscenter from 35-hour workweek


Anonymous said...

Hey Leah,

Great cuppla posts.

On the subject of critical distance with regard to sports - have you seen the movie Big Fan? It's kinda interesting along those lines. And entertaining too.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey thanks!

No I haven't seen that film, but from watching the trailer you posted, it looks intense. Thanks for the recommendation!

Michael said...

Woah weird I was just thinking about this as I am mid Simmons' latest 700 page opus, The Book of Basketball. So funny that I would end up discussing this on a visual art themed blog.

In general the argument he makes is that you have to look beyond statistics to discover the greatest players and goes on to design his own Hall of Fame (It's a pyramid actually) based on these intangibles.

His witty banter, tangential style and personal investment are what have me still reading. If it was dry, unbiased reporting I would have put it down a while ago.

BUT - the problem is he seems to be an unabashed misogynist. Once every 20 pages or so there is a wince inducing reference to a topless dancer or a poorly formed analogy comparing some guy's jump shot to how hot some girl is - and I'm just like - Dude, i am not fourteen listening to Guns and Roses at camp anymore!

So basically I guess I like more personality, imagination and style in my writers - except for when I don't like some elements of their personality. Then they should shut up and act like professionals.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Michael,

Wow, that's great that you're reading the book right now! It's helpful to get your firsthand comments.

I agree with you that "witty banter, tangential style and personal investment" are key aspects of writing that keeps people (me included!) engaged and reading. Some critics or reporters are great to read almost exclusively for those reasons -- that they are super writers.

Your comment re 14 year olds and Guns and Roses also resounds though! Yikes.