In February of last year, Canadian Notes and Queries publisher Dan Wells kindly approached me with a question. “Brainstorming a games issue of CNQ,” he wrote in an email. “Wondered if you might want to talk about your love of baseball as part of it.”
Anyone who knows me understands that I certainly never shy away from writing about my love of the game. In the past five years, baseball has evolved into an absurdly large part of my life, both in the ballpark and on the page. I’m constantly preoccupied with what it means that it has become such a (perhaps irrational) passion, and so much of my writing about teams, players, and tiny baseball dramas has to do with getting at the root of that adoration.
At its core, writing is a method of understanding, and I’ve put together thousands and thousands of words on what this pastime means to me and all the people who are so blissfully enamored with it. I’ve been trying to unpack why the boys on the field, the bat connecting with the ball, or an impossible catch at the outfield wall fills me with so much joy, and relieves me of so much anxiety. (To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve actually figured it out just yet.)
But when I received this generous request from CNQ, I admit I was perplexed that such a highbrow venue would even be remotely interested in my musings on the game. I of course know Wells to be a great lover of sports (Go Tigers!) and that his press, Biblioasis, has put out a number of great titles on the subject. But for whatever reason the games we play and love are so rarely the subject of high-end literary discourse, and the decision to devote an entire issue to subject was a pleasant and welcome departure from the status quo.
It’s hard to argue against the fact that sports and games are generally excluded from respected literature, and they rarely find themselves in the pages of Canadian literary journals. When I put the question of great Canadian literary sports titles to social media, only a small handful of titles came my way, with the same few books repeated again and again. It may be that old, dusty CanLit stereotype at work, but when we think of the themes “great writing” features, the emotions that, say, accompany a day at the ballpark rarely factor in.
This could be because sports tend to have a pop culture quality about them, something that is generally frowned on in the classic definition of the canon. Sports stereotypes also lead us to believe they’re solely enjoyed by those meathead jocks we hated in high school—not fine, award-winning analytical minds with a knack for unpacking the human condition. Maybe the best and the brightest simply see sports as beneath them
The state of mainstream Canadian sportswriting could be seen as partially to blame for this exclusion. When I recently interviewed Jays play-by-play announcer Buck Martinez, he summed up the media grind in a pretty succinct and damning way. “Everybody is looking for a different take on the situation so they write about shit,” he told me. It’s definitely true that the daily stream on the subject tends to be lazy, incendiary, or stats-driven filler, lacking true craft or narrative. While south of the border the US fosters and celebrates their quality sports writing with an annual anthology of America’s best, in Canada we haven’t yet been able to encourage a culture that produces slower, thoughtful, literary takes.
Having said all that, it remains odd to me that sport seems to exist in its own sphere, an afterthought to more prestigious and reputable works. Given how much of our lives are preoccupied by the game’s rises and falls, how much emotion we pour into its outcomes, it would seem to be a great fit in terms of what’s regarded as serious writing. For me, sport is a great place to examine our elation, our misery, and our obsessions. Yet instead it tends to get its own shelf, its own genre designation, its own category—never mixed in with the rest of the respected literature.
There are, of course, notable exceptions to this rule. Back in 2001, acclaimed poet and short-story writer Steven Heighton released his debut novel, The Shadow Boxer. Angie Abdou’s 2007 novel The Bone Cage featured a wrestler and a speed swimmer. Beloved author Paul Quarrington gave us the 2008 Canada Reads pick, King Leary. Carrie Snyder’s The Girl Runner was a stunning 2014 look at the life of an Olympic athlete. Then of course, there’s Edmonton-born legend W. P. Kinsella, whose love of baseball ultimately translated into countless books and short stories on the subject, and of course the classic film adaptation, Field of Dreams.
The fact is, the games we love offer deep insight into who we are, and are very often a useful lens in which to look at our ever-evolving cultural beliefs. Sports evoke passion, camaraderie, commitment, and strength like no other arena, and have inspired emotion in even the most cynical of fans. (I can more readily cry over a Blue Jays loss than I can over a loss of my own.) When married with great writing and insight, what happens on the field reveals so much of who we are, and who we can be.
Though the hot off the press issue of CNQ doesn’t cover traditional sports per say, it perhaps more readily proves the worth of leisure by leaning toward a more niche end of “play.” Beyond my musings on how baseball relates to mental health, the issue looks into pinball, video games, table top games, role playing games, and even #Gamergate. It’s a nice step outside of the box that literature can find itself in, and challenges notions of what we should collectively be regarding as noteworthy.
For sports and games writing to find a way to belong in the canon, we not only have take a chance on it, but create venues for writers to reveal its significance. An openness to it is not only good for literature, but good for readers looking for a refreshing avenue of insight into who we are as human beings. The games we play are certainly worthy of celebration, and maybe one day I’ll write my way into figuring out just why we love them so much.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Stacey May Fowles is the author of three novels, and her bylines include The National Post, The Globe and Mail, Elle Canada, Maisonneuve, Toronto Life, The Walrus, Vice Sports, Hazlitt, Quill and Quire, and others. Fowles' third novel, Infidelity (ECW press 2013) was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, was selected as an Amazon Best Book of 2013, and won an Independent Publisher Book Award. Her most recent book, Baseball Life Advice, is an essay collection released by McClelland & Stewart in spring 2017. Editor of Best Canadian Sports Writing (ECW 2017,) Fowles writes about books for The Globe and Mail, baseball for Jays Nation and The Athletic, and is author of the popular weekly Baseball Life Advice e-newsletter.