Thursday, January 01, 2015

Why sportsmen's autobiographies disappoint.


When Sachin Tendulkar released his autobiography recently, I knew that at least one person would not be buying or reading it.  Me.
While I’ve always considered him an intuitive batting genius, I’ve never heard him utter an intelligent remark about the game. So, even if it was going to be ghost-written, I was under no illusion at all that the book would offer any insight either on how he approached or planned his innings or any other nuances of the game.  
But, given his stature, there was tremendous anticipation before the release of the book. I am sure it sold well, even if the reviews were not too favourable.
Why are autobiographies of most geniuses invariably disappointing and why do we feel the need to read autographies of sportsmen, at all?
In his review of tennis-player Tracy Austin’s autobiography (“Beyond Centre Court”) David Foster Wallace writes (you can find a pdf version here.) :
Almost uniformly bad as books, these athletic “My story”s sell incredibly well; there are so many of them. And they sell so well because athletic stories seem to promise something more than the regular old name-dropping celebrity autobiography.
Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we revere- fastest, strongest- and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus they’re beautiful. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstraction like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.
So, we want to know them. These gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to go intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain. We want to know how they did it. What goes through their minds? Is their Agony of Defeat anything like our little agonies of daily frustration?
So ,the point then about these sports memoirs’ market appeal: Because top athletes are profound, because they make a certain type of genius as carnally discernible as it can ever get, these ghost-written invitations inside their lives and their skulls are terribly seductive for book buyers. Explicitly or not, the memoirs make a promise- to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semi divine, to share with us the secret and so both to reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference …to give us what we want, expect, only one, the master narrative, the key) Story.
However seductively they promise, though, these autobiographies never deliver. And “Beyond Centre Court” is especially bad. The book fails not because it’s poorly written, but because what any college sophomore knows is the capital crime of expository prose; it forgets who it’s supposed to be for…. None of the book’s loyalties are to the reader. The author’s primary allegiance seems to be her family and friends.
DFW then talks about the air of robotic banality that suffuses the sports-memoirs genre and how the books turn out to be disappointing and stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that fascinate the readers.
It remains very hard for me to reconcile the vapidity of Austin’s narrative mind, on the one hand, with the extraordinary mental powers that are required for world-class tennis, on the other.
Real indisputable genius is so impossible to define that maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be also geniuses as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound.
The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of what just goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the centre of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might be : nothing at all .
It may well be that we spectators who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the ones truly able to see, articulate and animate the experience of the gift that we are denied. And 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.
I felt that this, to a large extent, explains why Sachin – undoubted genius, though he is, when batting- was unable to offer any insights in his autobiography ( As I admitted, I haven’t read it. I’m going by some of the reviews I came across).  Unfortunately for him, his ghost writer too lacked an understanding of what to provide to the readers.

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