I've been asked to appear on a radio show Thursday morning to talk about what makes a good sports novel. As I researched the topic, I noticed almost every list of great novels about sports included a wide array of differing titles. Sure, "Friday Night Lights" and "Fever Pitch" seemed to be consensus favorites, but it was obvious that the perspective of the people doing the rating skewed the choices in a particular direction. Some lists appeared to favor great prose, as in "My Losing Season", by Pat Conroy, best known for "Prince of Tides" or "Paper Lion" by George Plimpton, considered one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Alan Alda later played Plimpton in the film about the training camp the writer spent covering the Detroit Lions, even taking a few snaps at quarterback in a preseason game.
Then there are novels that, while clearly having sports as a theme, are more commentaries on our society and culture. "Friday Night Lights" by H.G. Bissinger fits this mold. The novel, ultimately brought to the big screen and television, captures the essence of small town life, with otherwise frustrated people living out their hopes and dreams through a high school football team. Even North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent, while chronicling a season for the fictional North Dallas Bulls, captures the roller coaster of emotions and the choices we all have to make between personal expression and conforming with the norms of our environments.
A large and popular number of sports books are factual accounts of seasons, teams or individuals. John Feinstein, a fantastic sports journalist, has written many, but two stand out: "A Season on the Brink" about the 1986 Indiana Hoosiers coached by the legendary and incendiary Bobby Knight, and "A Good Walk Spoiled" that documents life on the PGA Tour in the pre-Tiger Woods era of the early 1990's. Jerry Kramer's "Instant Replay" was a straightforward account by the offensive lineman of the Green Bay Packers during the final season of Vince Lombardi's great reign as head coach, ending with Bart Starr's quarterback sneak to win the famous Ice Bowl over the Dallas Cowboys. Even though the Packers went on to win Super Bowl II, Kramer chose to instead focus on the touchdown for which he cleared the way for Starr. A few years later, Jim Bouton rocked the sports world with his behind the scenes, locker room expose of Major League Baseball's Seattle Pilots. Bouton was subsequently blackballed in baseball circles, but as a fourteen year old, I thought it was just about the funniest thing I had ever read, and still do.
My personal favorites, and the ones I pattern my own stories after, are humorous, irreverant and generally use sports as a backdrop for other plot lines. Dan Jenkins, author of "Semi Tough", among others, is a master at this type of story. Mike Lupica, now writing sports novels for Young Adults, also had a knack for telling fictional stories that resonate with our sense of reality. I could go on and on, of course, no doubt leaving out some all-time favorites like "Hoop Dreams", "Seabiscuit" or "Boys of Summer".
But the breadth of variety just goes to support my point that a good sports novel can be many things to many people, just as sports themselves are. Athletic competition is intrinsically exciting, particularly when we have something at stake, like national pride during the Olympics, our alma mater's reputation during March Madness, or when an entire country is trying to recover from tragedies such as the assassination of president or the destruction of office towers and the lives within them. Just as sports represent the fabric of our culture, books about that topic decorate the literary landscape. A good sports novel makes us feel, it makes us think, it makes us laugh and it makes us cry. But most of all, just like watching sports, it makes us want to experience another, and another, and another, because no two books and no two athletic events are ever the same.
Don't forget to check out my new book, "Roughing the Passer - A PK
Frazier Novel" and my first, "Illegal Procedure - A PK Frazier Novel",
available in print and e-formats at Amazon.com, iBooks and Smashwords.