Little Brown has reissued, in a common series format, seven books by George Plimpton which fall more or less in the category of what the author called “participatory journalism.”
Don't be fooled by the post title. I'm not going to hell you “how it can help us readers to know what category of writing we're reading.” Rather I'm advancing — or, more accurately, baldly asserting — that it can help us readers to know what category of writing we're reading.
The post-title reference to George Plimpton and Stephen King will alert some readers — those of the strangely all-reading and all-remembering sort — that we're harking back to my Sunday post, “The splendid piece on John le Carré is part of an embarrassment of riches in the new NYRB.” Among those riches were, “on the pop-cultural front”:
• novelist-translator-essayist Tim Parks on “The Pleasures of Reading Stephen King” (free to subscribers only)
• Nathaniel Rich on “The George Plimpton Story” (free to subscribers only), reviewing the serial-form reissue, with added commentaries, of Plimpton's books of what he dubbed, probably intentionally misleadingly, “participatory journalism”
At that time I had read Rich's piece, but not yet Parks's, which focuses on King's now-completed Bill Hodges Trilogy, the three novels — Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch — that tell the story of that retired police detective's arduous, dogged pursuit of an especially nefarious malefactor. It turns out that both the Rich and the Parks essays involve major issues of what we might call, probably not very helpfully, “genrization.”
Both reviewers clearly enjoyed the books and admire the authors in question, but for both a significant part of the pleasure derived derives from understanding what sort of writing those authors were undertaking. In George Plimpton's case, for example, while the writer himself did use the term “participatory journalism,” he himself expressed qualms about it. Nathaniel Rich wants it understood from the outset that the “journalism” part of the label is wrong.
Plimpton was only a journalist in the sense that James Thurber was an illustrator and Robert Benchley a newspaper columnist. He went places, spoke to people, and wrote down his observations, but the reporting wasn’t the point. What was the point? The storytelling, the humanity, the comedy.
It was an odd match to begin with,” Rich writes. “For a writer of Plimpton’s background, journalism ranked on the literary hierarchy somewhere below light verse and pulp westerns.”
In George, Being George, Charles Michener, Plimpton’s editor at The New Yorker, explained:
Journalists were from a rougher background. They tended not to be Ivy League, white-shoe boys, which George was certainly the epitome of. When I came into that world, I was at Yale and people would say, “Why do you want to be a journalist? It’s sleazy. That isn’t for people like you.”
Journalism was not to be taken seriously, but comedy writing was even more of a joke. What was the president of the Harvard Lampoon, class of 1948, to do?
What this patrician New Englander did, post-Harvard, was go on to earn a master's degree in English, then move to Paris and found the Paris Quarterly, an elite literary magazine if there ever was one, which he edited for the 50 years till his death in 2003. As Rich, recalls, though, in the early years of Sports Illustrated, which Henry Luce had founded “with the hope of targeting men of leisure,” “the editors had as much interest in hunting, boating, and polo as in the major spectator sports,” and the magazine recruited writers like William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Budd Schulberg, James T. Farrell,and John P. Marquand. So it wasn't much of a stretch to tap Plimpton for the piece that eventually grew into the 1961 book that is now republished as Out of My League: The Classic Account of an Amateur's Ordeal in Professional Baseball.
Clearly Plimpton and the assorted editors who collaborated on the subsequent sports-themed magazine and book projects understood that he was on to something. And while it wasn't journalism, it was certainly participatory.
[A]ll of Plimpton’s books were participatory in the sense that he is always tangibly present, his sensibility — beguiling, lyrical, charming, deeply funny — singing from every paragraph. The joy of these books comes less from sharing the company of Muhammad Ali or Alex Karras than — a point lost on his many imitators — from sharing the company of George Plimpton.
And the author was carefully about staging the character of “George Plimpton” whose company readers were invited to share, a sort of false-Everyman caricature of himself. A striking example is his physical misrepresentation of himself. Rich notes, “The threat of severe bodily injury offers the highest dramatic stakes, which is to say, the best comedy,” and tells us:
To heighten the danger Plimpton plays up his physical fragility and ineptitude. He describes himself in Paper Lion as built “very lean and thin, along the lines of a stick,” in Shadow Box “rather like a bird of the stiltlike, wader variety — the avocets, limpkins, and herons,” in Open Net as “the quintessential ectomorph.” He skates across the rink in his goalie equipment “with the ponderous gait of a dowager coming down a church aisle.” Plimpton was, in fact, a born athlete — [Philip] Roth ["in the extended appreciation of Plimpton that appears in Exit Ghost"] remembers touch football games “in which George threw spirals as accurate as any a pass receiver could hope for in any league.”
Rich has a great deal more to say about this group of books (including some caveats about exactly which of Plimpton's books were included in the series), which I'll leave you to discover for yourself. I think it's only fair, though, to make clear that for him the books hold up.
[S]ports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton’s books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era that, as Rick Reilly writes in his foreword to The Bogey Man, “historians classify as ‘Before Insurance Lawyers Ruined Everything.’” (Journalists might classify it as Before Fact-Checkers Ruined Everything.)
TO BE CONTINUED SUNDAY, WITH PHILIP ROTH
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis