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Writing Nerds - A Conversation About Blogs with Bethlehem Shoals

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Advisory: This post is ridiculously long.  Read it or don't, just please don't complain about its length in the comments.



Some time has passed since I wrote "the Eggers piece" and, as you might have noticed, i haven't commented on it since then.  There's a simple reason for that: I said what I had to say.  That chapter is done.

However, with those points made, I started to ask myself, "What kinds of things are possible in this form?"  I heard from a lot of bloggers and blog readers who were pleased with the piece and its overarching points, and that made me happy; but I also wanted to seek out advice from someone who represents the kind of free language, free ideas, and free form that I see as only possible online.  If there is a quintessential blog for this loosey-goosey idealized abstract freedom it is FreeDarko

So, I repeatedly harassed Free Darko's Bethlehem Shoals via email over the past week. The result is the following conversation on blogs, writing, form and other things. My thoughts are in plain type; his are in the boxes.



When mainstream writers slam bloggers for writing more opinion based pieces, I think they are missing the boat in an important way: sportswriting can't move forward in the digital age unless experimentation is encouraged.

Recently, I quoted David Halberstam lauding experimental sportswriters like Smith, Cannon and Heniz.  That inspired me to re-read Tom Wolfe's The New Journalism which glorifies the work and lives of writers like Talese and Thompson for breaking out of the standards of dispassionate, fully-objective journalism in favor of more fast-paced, personality-driven, literary reporting.

Yet, the flipside to this experimental approach still exists today.  Boiled down, it is a perspective shared by many beat writers and journalists: "I am not the story, the subject is the story." From this viewpoint and from these writers comes one of the most common complaints about blogging (a complaint that is often presented as being unique to blogging): the over-reliance upon the first person. Is this a fair criticism of blogging given the history of experimental writing that precedes it?

I don't know why beat writers would have a problem with bloggers not writing game recaps. What exactly do columnists do all the time? And I do agree with you that, while plenty of longer features are just deferential puff pieces, or noble, in-depth bio sketches, asserting yourself as an author in terms of style and content is a way to put yourself in the story without turning it into a needlessly subjective exercise. This is the "Breaks of the Game" model.

I don't see there being a binary between blogs/newspapers, as much as there being journalists who want to do more news-y or fact-driven stuff, and those with more writer-ly and/or humorous goals.

When it comes to the former, yeah, journalists have every right to hold bloggers to some standards of truthfulness, professionalism, and maybe even taste. But in both kinds of writing, the old guard needs to recognize that much of what it stands for has grown stagnant.

The latter, which is more the discussion is a challenge for everyone. Those "on the inside" need to take risks, or strike a balance, so that they aren't put in a compromising position with regard to their livelihood (and exposure). And for bloggers, we need to get writing out there that's going to make "the establishment" want to take us seriously, and put us in a position to change the face of sports writing.

It's a huge leap from "blogger" to "decent writer," and from there, another chasm between that and "on the inside telling the story no one else will, or in a way no else will."  


Coming from a fiction/poetry background rather than a journalism background, that particular criticism of blogging gnaws at me because a lot of good writing (even nonfiction) directly or indirectly includes the writer as an important character. Point-of-view wise, do you think it matters where you are in your posts and stories? Shouldn't it be relatively liquid?

I think a lot of that depends on why someone starts blogging about sports. If it's because they find inherent value in the experience of fandom, which is sort of Will Leitch's take, then I see fandom-if not the individual fan-as becoming a character. On the other hand, if we're talking about some random NFL fan who has decided he knows better than ESPN, then wouldn't he prefer to keep vantage point out of it, except to rub it in the face of The Man? His credibility comes not out of who he is, but in spite of it.

How and when have you entered your posts/stories? Does it depend on where you are publishing?

The times I've actually gone out of my way to make reference to my life, or the circumstances under which I watched a game, seem pretty incidental to FreeDarko. In truth, I often in retrospect wish I'd left them out, but they can be funny, or mildly humanizing touches. Both of those go back to what I think the real non-"subject" story is in FD: the sensibility and style of the writing, which implies a far stronger character, or subjective voice, than any "I like pancakes" ever could. It seems to me that, if that's the effect you're going for, a reader can't help but find an implied author's personality, and agenda, in there. Especially when that's just not how sports is usually written about. It's like, "what kind of moron discusses the NBA like this?"

Then again, it's really only with the most dejected (non-blogging) beat writers and columnists that you get no sense of love for the game. If you can discern that, then you can always sense something of the person behind the writing. That's part of why I think FreeDarko can't help but implicate me as a person-sports aren't the stock market or the UN. They are made to inspire emotion and personal investment. This all has something to do with feminist theory but I'm not quite sure what.

Incidentally, I am watching this PBS show about squid, and they keep prattling on about the guy who is diving and filming them.


Surveying the 2008 sports media landscape: the # of media is increasing; the interest in media itself is increasing; true access to athletes is decreasing; athlete/media relations seem to be deteriorating; athletes and teams are taking active steps to write their own stories... is this a petri dish for a return to more creative writing in the sports genre? Are we entering (or are we already living in) an era where the day-to-day results matter less than the personalities and circumstances around them?

A few barely related thoughts here:

1. "Breaks of the Game" is the most thoughtful book on the NBA ever written, and it's based around absolute detail. Page Two's glory days made elevated the hermetic approach to column writing to a self-aware art form.

2. I don't know if the profusion of reporters writing wire stories necessarily hinder more ambitious stuff, other than getting in their way in the locker room. But I could see how the public's sense of overkill when it comes to that kind of content would lead to malaise and then a cry for newness, or authenticity.

3. Which, of course, is exactly why Deadspin has become such an institution.

4. As for a change in the climate or culture of sports writing, I hate to be cynical, but I don't see a ton of excellent, but relatively unknown, blogs as constituting this. I'll only buy this when there's a wider audience being fed, or demanding, a different kind of sports writing on a regular basis. And places putting money behind this kind of writer.

5. Not to be a d---, but it's not like every single corporate blog, or blogger now writing for pay, can say they're regularly taking part in some sort of "creative sports writing" revolution. I say this from experience. 

I'm surprised to hear you knock the internet (I am young, naive and feel that we can do no wrong).

I'm not knocking it, just saying we should look at it more critically and realistically. What has it actually allowed for, who has actually emerged from it, what problems has it caused.

I trust your skepticism and share your thought that "corporate blogs" are starting to stagnate a bit.

Tom Wolfe famously argues that the so-called New Journalists gained their audience because of the pace and excitement and newness of their form. They replaced dry journalism with deeper, more artistic, more literary stuff and it caught on pretty quickly, hopping from newspapers/magazines into books. Has the hyperspeed internet, video revolution, etc. killed any hope for a similar demand/interest in more daring sportswriting in today's climate? Does it boil down to an attention span issue?

I can definitely say that the Internet is really, really bad for all but the most punchy kind of writing. When I write FD, or a Deadspin column on behalf of FD, I basically have to sit down and pretend I'm not writing for the web. Otherwise, the writing loses a lot of its curiosity. Plus, short blog posts are really hard to make into something interesting-much less worth reading one day later.

Why do you say that? Is it the internet itself? Too many distractions just a click away? nothing tangible to hold on to like a newspaper? too many advertisements? Or just its reputation/stigma?

I didn't mean to come across quite so cynical. I mean, s---, I started writing about basketball for fun three years ago, and now I have a book coming out. The ability to self-publish, find readers and have them find you through more organic or targeted means, sidestep productions costs, not have an editor restricting you. . . all of this stuff provides an ideal opportunity for creative work.

I just question whether or not these brave souls really constitute a sea change in sports journalism. Journalism ultimately is about millions of potential readers and their dollars, and ad dollars, and is attached to the ginormous business of sports. Having revolutionary intent alone isn't enough; unless you match the scale of what you're going up against it, it's either an underground or a nuisance. That might be drawing too stark a distinction, but until we can really say that the kind of writing you're talking about penetrated the MSM, as a cohesive movement it's still out on the margins or lurking in the shadows.

Buzz Bissinger made a fool of himself because he had his facts wrong, and decided to try and pick on Will and Drew, two writers who certainly fit the bill of a new sports journalism. And who, suprise surprise, are both published authors. But I can see why he'd be angry at a lot of blogs, or feel that the medium itself was discouraging decent writing. I'm not really about reporting, or access, or inside scoops, but if he wants to argue that the internet has a deleterious effect on writing, I'd agree. So it's really a blessing and a curse. A blessing on the most basic level, but it can also backfire tremendously.   


Do you feel like you're living in a pageview-driven world? As traditional media (newspapers and magazines) continue to move more and more of their assets online do you envision a changed culture like I'm hoping for (renewed interest in longer, more artistic sports journalism) or do you think things will develop there as they have on the larger blogs (flesh, sensationalist stories, etc.)?

I think they have to become convinced that people want to read more "artistic sports journalism." I don't rule out there being some sort of subculture of sports fans who thrive on stuff like that, and the web making viable a site that caters to them. I would love to edit that site. But again, corporate interests need A LOT of incentive to go "interesting." Even just having blogs, no matter how rote or straightforward, is treated like the sky is falling.

How far are we from having a stable sky. 2 years? 3 years? 5 years? 10? it feels like blogs have come a long way since 2005-6 in terms of content, credibility, etc. and certainly there have been milestones, but maybe that's too blogger-ish of a way of looking at things? are bloggers guilty of myopia more than any other group of writers?

Not to get all philosophical, but what are "bloggers?" People who use this software? Amateur who insisted they had something to say? Post-Simmons sports journalism? On a practical level, we're a community because we read each other, email each other, and occasionally interact in person. But we really do need some better categories, since we all do different things. Some of us do multiple things in our internet sports writing.

The credentials thing is big; ESPN buying True Hoop was major, and allowed Henry to become even more of a genteel force of nature. Getting paid to blog is good, but can be ghettoizing. Again, it depends on what the people paying you think the point of blogging is, or how much they actually value you as an individual writer (as opposed to a content producer). If blogs really are somehow transformative, or have the potential to be. . . that's more about writers gaining a reputation and fanbase through the internet than whatever the larger category "blogger" comes to mean to those holding the purse strings, or making the editorial decisions.

At the risk of sounding really naive, I'd like the people I like to get paid decently to do whatever the hell they want. Again, this is in the context of you suggesting-and me believing-that there is a real threat of new blood, new ideas, new beginnings at our fingertips. That's real change we can believe in. That's why I keep bringing up Will (Leitch) and Drew (Magary), even if there's plenty of other bloggers I respect and enjoy tremendously; they're getting to write their own ticket, as the saying goes.

When doing stories where you are out conducting interviews or watching games, have you ever felt like the act of writing the story was a better story than "the story"? For example, at the Nike Hoop Summit (ed. note: the one and only time I have met Shoals in person), the Rose Garden press room was a Delhi open-air market with agents, translators, representatives of USA basketball, Worldwide Wes, immensely-talented players armed with their ever-present Ipod protection, and then the intrigued writers trying to make sense of the mess and the meaningless game that was just played. Million-dollar transactions went down on draft night involving those players; yet their representation or the team's representation didn't make the necessary arrangements to ensure open communication could take place.

That was a funny day; but it was just one of many. The absurdist qualities to big business NBA seemingly have no limit. I guess what I'm getting at is, a newspaper writer can't or won't ever tell that story. It seems like he would prefer that story be left untold or he would leave it to a book writer to come along and tell it (maybe?). At the time, I realized I was a bit player in chaos but I didn't think to tell that story.

Could this be an area where blogs, without limits in word counts and with the immediacy of its format, might succeed? Bringing in first-person accounts of the machine at work-- treading on the borderline between being a part of it and yet being innately separate somehow.

Sometimes in locker rooms, I think the players' interactions are far more interesting (and telling) than their on the record quotes. That seems to me a way we can use access in a creative way, even if it's by necessity impressionist and interpretive. That's the only way I could've written about the Hoop Summit, since I had such an incomplete grasp of what was going on, and why certain conversations in the corner actually mattered. I don't think anyone who is insider-y enough to know the whole story would want to air it out, lest he risk his special status. And that would go for any MSM journalist or renegade blogger who found himself in that position.

Another sports media trend we haven't touched on yet is that professional sports teams are getting richer and building their own press/marketing departments they are increasingly setting the tone and subjects for discourse. Are bloggers or online writers equipped to serve as a counterweight or to find the "real story" about a team or player?

Sure, in the sense that they've got nothing to lose. Provided they had the contacts or intensive access necessary to get there once. Which either leads me back to the previous question, or makes me wonder why a team that's guarded with it's players would put a rank amateur in that position. I do think, though, that we have the freedom to write stuff that has more emotional and aesthetic resonance, which, in some new age-y kind of way, is "real" in a way more straightforward reporting (or column writing) isn't.

Are you the Gay Talese of the "no homo" generation? when FD started, were you writing with the idea/goal that you were creating a new genre? Who are the blog's influences?

It's really hard for me to recollect those early days with any seriousness, since at the time the blog was just one big inside joke. I ripped off Billups, Ian Cohen, and Joey Litman a lot, since they were sports bloggers I could relate to. And vintage Ralph Wiley and Simmons, of course. If anything, I guess the writing then was a combination of those influences-how I thought a blog should sound-with the authors, theorists, and critics that I've been influenced by. A few names: Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, Pauline Kael, Walter Benjamin, Francis Davis, Vladimir Mayakovsky, James Agee. I like Woody Allen's essay on Earl Monroe.

Do you hold out hope that the masses will "get" FD or are you cynical about the readers in the same way you are about the online culture?

I have no illusions about the limited audience that exists for FD, the blog. The book has a wider one, because it's a lot more visual, and the writing is more focused. Not so hermetic. In that same way, I think I can have a career as a writer without compromising myself, even if it means departing slightly from FD's crackpot vision. I guess I'm saying that I think I can write FD-ish-ly and do okay for myself, even if some of the goofier trappings of the site and its ongoing conversation disappear at times.  


Have you experienced backlash from "traditional" writers that object to the new forms and ideas put forth on FD?

Actually, a lot of MSM people tell me they really dig FD. Same goes for people in magazines, publishing, etc. The greatest backlash I've experienced is other blogs and message boards calling me pretentious, uninformed, or incoherent.

Then again, I've never made any secret of the fact that I prefer to write long pieces, not short entries more regularly associated with the blogging platform, and that I probably prefer writing in print. Hell, my career goal was to publish a book--talk about an antiquated form.

Why the "probable preference" for print? Just old-school like that?

It works better with the kind of writing I do. And I like holding a finished product in my hands.

Here we come full circle... I find it appropriate that Wolfe and the New Journalists were looking for book deals almost from the beginning. I know you've got a book coming. What's the career goal now?

Better paying, more regular freelance work. Or maybe, god forbid, something more stable. Other than that, more books.

Unrelated to anything but Blazers fans need to know: how FD are the 2008 Blazers?

The Blazers cleaned up on draft night. Pritchard really is the only bad a--- GM in the league. Teams wish they could find an exec with that kind of balls and inventiveness on draft night. Pritchard is f---ing unreal. Still can't decide if he's a throwback of sorts, or a vision from the future. He's made building a team into something dynamic, interesting, and suspenseful-not just a "you'd better not screw this up" edict from the fans. And he has fun with it. Oh, and he definitely understands the value of seeing players for who they are, and trying to piece them together creatively. He's a gunslinger, and makes every square inch of the running of a franchise that much more interesting.


Ridiculous props to Shoals for doing this.  You can check Shoals at FD, Deadspin, Slam Magazine and The Sporting Blog.

-- Ben (