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Friday, October 03, 2008

Bill Simmons and David Foster Wallace

Unless all Outside the Lines essays take liberties inside the margins, Bill Simmons' OTL piece on Manny Ramirez looks like a tribute to what he learned about writing from being a David Foster Wallace fan. You can see DFW's Tracy Austin essay and the Federer essay all over this piece--and that's not a criticism, regardless of what Simmons had to take back this summer re: his claim that Federer and tennis were boring. What stands out in the Manny essay is that, when they're put in the familiar DFW footnote format, many of Simmons' signature moves (digressions, tangents, pop culture references, lists) look like what he must have admired in DFW. The Manny essay trots out many of the same lines Simmons has been using for years--the repetition is a convention at this point--and it's interesting to see them in a format that he isn't quite used to writing in, so that some of the footnotes of old material work, and others don't. There are whole paragraphs in the essay that would have made better footnotes, but that's a quibble. I think I'd like to read an essay about what Simmons learned from Wallace.
Quick tangent: I don't know what the hell this means. If you want to win the old-school media guys, really, you only have to do six things: run out every ground ball, end up with a dirty uniform every once in a while, show up on time, give reporters whatever time they need, light up like a little kid if Willie Mays or Hank Aaron ever walks into the dugout, and smile broadly during games (so the announcers can talk about how you'd play this game for free, even though you just opted out of your contract and held your team hostage for a $100 million raise). Do those things and you earn an "I Respect The Game" card. We should also mention that ...

A. Boston won two titles with a Hall of Famer who didn't respect The Game (Manny) and zero titles with a Hall of Famer who did (Carl Yastrzemski).

B. Players considered "Respects The Game" guys in their primes include Pete Rose (convicted felon, baseball gambler), Roger Clemens (identified as a cheater in the Mitchell Report) and (fill in the names of at least 12-15 other major stars from the Steroids Era).

On Manny: I liked this essay from Slate this summer about the Boston media treatment of him.

On David Foster Wallace: I haven't known what to say about it. My dad and I traded favorite paragraphs for several days afterward, and if we're still using Simmons conventions, one of my favorite moments with my dad was when we watched the Charlie Rose interview together on YouTube this winter. It was obvious that my dad had watched the interview multiple times because he kept anticipating what was going to happen, cracking up, and making his own verbal footnotes to the video.

I taught "Tense Present," about dictionaries and descriptivism, to my University Writing class a few semesters ago, and the students wrote the most extraordinary essays inspired by it. The students didn't try out his stylistic moves so much as they picked up Wallace's generosity and curiosity about wide-ranging subjects. One of the students from that class came up to me on the street a few days after we heard about Wallace's death and asked, "I just wanted to make sure you were OK." Then he said he was a third of the way into Infinite Jest, and we figured that was as good a way as any to keep thinking about him.

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Blogger Jim on Sat Oct 04, 06:05:00 AM:
Weird. I didn't know that Simmons was a DFW fan, but when I read his piece I thought the same thing, particularly the footnotes. I almost blogged about it and then I'm like, "no, I've already written more than my fair share about DFW's death," then I found your blog post.

I still haven't read IJ, but it's high on my list of books to read before the close of 2008.
Blogger Shawn on Thu Oct 16, 11:45:00 AM:
In case you didn't see it, here is a note from the Sports Guy, from the Mailbag dated 10/10:

Q: Was your heavy use of footnotes in your Manny column a not-so-subtle (but still effective) memorial tribute to David Foster Wallace? He might have been the finest sportswriter-who-wasn't-actually-a-sportswriter who ever lived. His portrait of Roger Federer a few years back was stunning (and, as a New Englander, you've got to read "Consider The Lobster"). Incredible writer; he'll be missed.
-- Mike W., Westport, Conn.

SG: I wrote the first and second drafts of that column (with footnotes) before Wallace died. So it was a little surreal how that worked out. The only other time I ever used footnotes for something I wrote was with my book. Anyway, as brilliant as his Federer piece was, I'd rank his Michael Joyce piece higher -- I thought it was one of the single best sports pieces ever written, right there with "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (John Updike); "Gone for Good" (Roger Angell); "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" (Richard Ben Cramer); "Lawdy Lawdy He's Great" (Mark Kram); "The Silent Season of a Hero" (Gay Talese); "Ego" (Norman Mailer); and "Pure Heart" (William Nack). I love so many other sports pieces (Hunter Thompson's Kentucky Derby piece, George Plimpton's "Medora Goes to a Game," Angell's "Agincourt and After" and "Distance," Charlie Pierce's piece about a post-HIV Magic Johnson, Wright Thompson's piece about his father, John McPhee's "Centre Court," Frank Deford's Jimmy Connors profile, Talese's "The Loser," Wallace's Federer piece, Tony Kornheiser's Rick Barry profile, David Halberstam's piece about Jordan after the '98 Finals, Rick Reilly's profile of Bryant Gumbel, Gary Smith's profiles of Muhammad Ali and Jim Valvano, and so on and so on), but if you're picking a "Top 12 Greatest Sports Pieces Ever," those eight pieces have to be included. They just do.