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Storytelling

Posted By Brian Phillips On February 7, 2011 @ 4:40 pm In Featured | 34 Comments

Every goal ends an old match and begins a new one. That’s the hardest thing to recreate, after the fact, when you read about heroic comebacks: the sheer tremendousness of the goals, the way whatever happened took place in a reality that was totally conditioned by what had gone before, and not conditioned at all by the (still-unforeseeable) events to come, which to us are the most famous, and hence most inevitable-seeming, part of the story. 1-0 is a completely different universe, psychologically, from 0-0, or from 2-0. And by the time you reach the improbable airless heights of 3-0 or 4-0, you know the match is over, it would be crazy to expect anything else, the competitive game has been definitively killed off by the last goal or by the goal before that, and what you’re now watching is a kind of limp exhibition whose sole function is to fill a quotient of remaining time.

When it doesn’t work out that way—I mean when you’re in the moment, at the time, watching Newcastle score four goals—it’s a stunning feeling, because the whole expectation-climate that’s already configured itself one way in your mind, and then reconfigured itself, each time getting more definite and less alterable, is suddenly disassembling itself in a way that suggests your whole habit of reliance on empirical observation may be fatally flawed, or even basically absurd. Assuming it’s not happening to your team, it’s a giddy feeling. But afterward, when “4-4″ has been blasted to Mars and back in radioactive type, so that the only possible reality-configuration is the last one—that is, the amazing one that ended the game—you lose that sense of certainty-taking-itself-apart that made the experience of watching so wonderful. You know you saw an incredible feat, but its very incredibleness makes it timeless and monumental. It feels foreordained, like everything incredible.

I’ve been thinking a lot, in an irresponsible sort of way, about storytelling. I’ve gotten the impression over the last couple of days that, while we all know Newcastle-Arsenal was an insane, historic, staggering game, the sort of game we might not see again for years, it’s actually been a little easier to talk about Chelsea-Liverpool. Admittedly, that’s based on a completely subjective and unscientific survey of the tone of newspaper articles and people I follow on Twitter. But even a lot of the Newcastle stuff I did see involved, for instance, looking at how the result impacted the title race—in other words, how it it fit into an already-established, ongoing media narrative that didn’t require any imagination or effort to re-enter. In the same way, all the “Torres was rubbish!!” pieces hooked into a narrative that had already been proposed and set up by the pre-match hype. Again, this is completely subjective, but it even seemed like it was a relief to be able to talk about a match that lent itself so well to the pull of familiar storylines after the mad sui generis thing that was Newcastle’s comeback.

Isn’t this, on some level, a failure of storytelling? I’m not totally comfortable asserting that, because there are some great storytellers in soccer writing, from Galeano to the Guardian, and obviously the hegemony of the hype-friendly media narrative is built on more than a shortcoming of literary technique. But just in very general terms, isn’t story something a lot of sportswriting struggles with? I mean story at the simplest level, the this-happened-and-then-this-happened level, the level of basic immersion and suspense. Compared to, say, fiction, which is deeply invested in being able to create those sorts of total, head-spinning reality-transformations that a goal imposes on a match (Edmond survived! Esther has smallpox! Mr. Darcy isn’t an asshole!), sportswriting is generally allergic to suspense. It has to be; it’s journalism, or at least an outgrowth of journalism, where the goal is to give the reader the most important information as quickly and efficiently as possible, not to play on her anxieties and provide an emotional payoff. Even the kind of long-form magazine piece that does trade in payoff will often start out with the end of the story: “Before the drugs got him, before the drink and the strippers and the countless strung-out nights in fleabitten hotels, before the nightmares and the doubts, Dominic Corcoran was a miniature golfer.” And as for the weekly, fake-wise, one-sentence-per-paragraph columnists, isn’t their characteristic approach to story to drum it home as clumsily and insistently as possible?

There’s probably no room to imagine a different genre or tradition of sportswriting in Our Current Media Culture, bless its dear inescapable talons, but really as a game more than anything, I wonder what one would look like. What would it mean to open up a newspaper or a blog and find a bunch of pieces that threw out the familiar conventions and tried to give you a vivid sense of what it was actually like to watch a match? What would the conventions of that genre be? Obviously it would be a supplement to mainstream sportswriting, not a replacement—when you just want the facts, you just want the facts. But there’s more to the game than the facts, and sometimes an overreliance on the facts can leave you not very well equipped to think about an astonishing thing you witnessed. As it is, all our narratives are narratives of information; even the airy-bogus, England’s Brave John Terry-type stuff has the compressed feel of journalism working at speed (“this is what you need to know about John Terry; it’s four words long”). So call this an instructive pipe-dream: Would our thoughts about the game have more nuance if more writers were invested in storytelling—in producing narratives of suspense?

“Reality” is obviously too broad a word here, but “climate of expectation” feels too narrow, even though that’s really the significant thing, isn’t it, when you’re watching a match, what you allow yourself to expect.

See note 1.

That’s also overstating the case, because technically you know a comeback is possible. But isn’t that what it feels like, watching it? Like if you threw a ball up in the air it might just keep on rising?

To the point that French TV actually quasi-made up a match-fixing story involving Interpol and Tomáš Rosický’s checking account, of all wonders.


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