Fiction and tackling the British sporting experience

by Steve

Old football team photo

I read today an interesting article in the Financial Times on the portrayal of sport in fiction. The main argument of the piece is that American authors have never been afraid to tackle the subject and have covered sport extensively, and well. Meanwhile, British authors have been far less inclined to cover sport in fiction, and have been far less convincing when they’ve tried. Reading this piece alongside an article from the Observer covering similar ground a couple of years ago, has left me wondering about sport in fiction, and how sport could work in British fiction.

I think the FT article covers the whys and wherefores far better than I ever could, but there does seem to be an explanation in the make-up of your archetypal American and British writers. Obviously we’re veering into a whole world of horrible stereotyping, but many American writers seem far more interested in physicality generally and writing appears to have the potential to be a rugged pursuit – maybe Hemingway’s legacy, maybe something older and deeper. It doesn’t seem so weird for an American author to like sport. And sportswriting on the whole seems more respected and something of a craft, and is generally better than what you’ll see in the UK (although there are plenty of exceptions).

British writers (especially of the literary variety), meanwhile, seem much more removed from sport. Perhaps it has its roots in class, maybe something else, but the literary and sporting worlds seem very far apart. There almost seems to be a distrust between the two.

Yet I still hope there is room for an English sporting literature. Sport is pretty much one big analogy for life and life’s struggles, and American literature has shown it is a pretty broad and reliable canvas for covering the big issues and themes that great literature should. And perhaps that is the key to success – the fiction can’t just rely entirely on telling the story of sporting events. On any given day the reality will outstrip the fiction on that front. The fiction needs to use the sporting theme in a more nuanced way. It can’t be all cup finals and gold medals. It needs to tinker around the edges, tease out those details that will make a meaningful book.

I think there is one major issue, beyond the literary establishment appearing not to have much appetite for sport. It is that the obvious sports to cover, football or cricket, whilst ingrained into our culture and microcosms (for want of a better word etc) of that culture, are team sports and so pretty difficult to write well about. There are too many characters, too many teams. Plus, with football the action is too frenetic. Cricket, as a pretty close cousin to the more literarily inclined baseball, has more of a chance, but there is a real risk of a writer falling into village green clichés.

I’m no fan of golf, but as a more solitary pursuit it seems a more likely candidate for producing a great English sporting book. All those long walks ruined would allow plenty of opportunity for soliloquies on whatever the author might fancy. Tennis or boxing as individual sports could work well too, as we’ve seen time and again in American writing.

Maybe a lead needs to be taken from the few successes of British sporting writing. The Damned United fused real people with fiction, and focused on one dominant character in a compelling way. Fever Pitch looked at sport from the spectator’s perspective. The individual within sport seems the more obvious path to success, both critical and commercial.

Or perhaps as sport is such a neglected subject in English literature it offers authors the opportunity to tackle the subject in a far more inventive and experimental way. As there is not the baggage of thousands of great sporting novels to live up (or down) to, it feels like there is a certain freedom on how to approach the subject in a way that would challenge yet connect with a readership.

If a writer could successfully articulate the frenzy of the football pitch or the rugby field, or the tribalism and belonging of fandom, or the media saturation and hype that surrounds us, or ideally all of those themes, they would probably have something pretty special in their hands. Sport is an important part of my life, and I think like many people, I like literature that reflects my life and expands upon it, showing me new avenues, or familiar ones in a new way. I hope something interesting on the British sporting experience emerges soon. I’d buy it.

Image from Galt Museum and Archives, via Flickr