Bill James’ Pop Fly

Baseball analyst Bill James asks over at Slate: Why is America better at producing athletes than writers? His argument is that as a society the United States does a much better job of identifying and encouraging athletic talent than it does, say, writing talent; as an opening argument in this he notes:

The population of Topeka, Kan., today is roughly the same as the population of London in the time of Shakespeare, and the population of Kansas now is not that much lower than the population of England at that time. London at the time of Shakespeare had not only Shakespeare—whoever he was—but also Christopher Mar­lowe, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and various other men of letters who are still read today. I doubt that Topeka today has quite the same collection of distinguished writers.

Well, come on, Bill James. I know you’re smarter than that. The only thing London of the late 16th Century and Topeka of the early 21st have in common is population. One was the impressively growing capital of an emerging world power, to which men of intellect were migrating (including Shakespeare and Marlowe, born as they were in Stratford and Cambridge, respectively), while the other is a state capital whose population has expanded roughly 2% in forty years, and whose potentially great writers are likely to migrate to centers of employment for writing — New York and Los Angeles, primarily — for the same reason Shakespeare and Marlowe found it congenial to hie to London for their work: Because that’s where the action is. In all, this is a spectacularly crap comparison.

The rest of James’ article isn’t much better, because it proceeds on a thesis that is shaky to begin with, i.e., that America’s better at developing athletes than it is writers. My first question here is: by what metric? Are we talking about people working professionally in both fields? Because you know what, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that as of May 2009, we’ve got 43,390 professional writers in the United States — “writers” in this case being those who “originate and prepare written material, such as scripts, stories, advertisements, and other material” and excluding those writers primarily working in public relations (of which there are 242,670) and technical writing (of which there are 46,270).

Meanwhile, also according to the BLS, as of 2008, there were about 16,500 professional athletes in the United States. So one could say that the United States develops two and a half times more professional writers than it does professional athletes. And while those pro athletes get paid more ($79,500 on average, compared to a mean of $64,500 for pro writers), it’s not that much more, and writers on average can do their jobs at a professional level longer than pro athletes. Yes, the top athletes can earn a tremendous amount of money, but then, so can the top writers.

James also flubs the argument in other ways. For example, this bit:

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years.

To which I respond: Really, Bill James? Any major league baseball player is equivalent to Shakespeare, Dickens, or Graham Greene? We’re seriously arguing Pedro Feliz is of the same existential value to our culture as the fellow who wrote The Third Man, The Quiet American and The End of the Affair, much less the fellows who wrote Hamlet or Great Expectations? I’m going to go ahead and express doubt at that contention.

What I expect would be rather more accurate to say is that if a city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years, it should also produce an author whose work is picked up by a major publishing house; let’s say one of the “big six”. Is that possible? Sure it is. You don’t even have to get up to the size of Topeka. Claremont, California has a population of about 35,000; it’s the place I generally give as my hometown because I went to high school there. So did Mark McGwire, although not at the same school. He and I are six years apart in age. My first book with a major publisher was in 2000 (Rough Guides is part of Penguin); his last game was in 2001.

It’s true he started working in MLB before I started being an author, but this isn’t entirely surprising, and looking at the contracted and proposed work I have in front of me, it seems entirely possible my career with major publishers will last as long as his did with the MLB. My career accomplishments to date are not as impressive as his, to be sure; but then I didn’t take any steroids, either. But whether his career and mine are directly equivalent isn’t the point; what is the point is that both he and I have played in our respective field’s equivalent of “The Show.” It’s a simple game: You write the book, you print the book, you sell the book. I’m just here to help the publishing house, and God willing, everything will work out.

That’s one concrete yet anecdotal example, but it can be repeated over and over. There are a lot of writers who get published by major publishers; there are lots of others who are published by small presses (to continue the (inexact) metaphor, they’re minor league but still pro) and still others who write professionally but work in other fields entirely (they’re playing football or hockey). We don’t lack for writers writing on a equivalent level to playing in a major league sport. They’re not all superstars, but they’re not all superstars in the major leagues, either. Both fields have a lot of journeymen. There are worse things to be.

James makes another error in his next sentence:

Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

We don’t tell writers to work on their craft for a long time because only then will we give them recognition; we tell them to work on their craft for a long time because generally speaking it takes a long time to “compete” at a pro level when it comes to writing, and particularly in fiction. Writing is not like athletics; there’s not an inherent competitive premium on youth. There are brilliant and/or financially successful novelists and storytellers under the age of 25, to be sure; they are as rare, however, as the major league player who is still at the top of the game in his or her 40s. Currently the top ten novels in the US (according to Bookscan) are written by people whose ages range from 39 to 83. It’s both an older and wider range of ages than you’d see for the top level of success in athletics.

The irony here is that James’ larger point — let’s celebrate and cultivate writing and writers in our culture like we celebrate and cultivate athletes — is not one I am in disagreement with in the slightest. I would love for schools and universities and our culture to make a fuss over and invest resources in their budding writers as they do with their athletes. I’d like for them to do the same with their budding actors, musicians, scientists and artists, too, while we’re at it. Where James and I disagree — ironically — is in how James jiggles his stats here to make his point. James is stacking his deck to raise the stakes, and in doing so he undercuts his actual argument. He’s not doing his Topkea Shakespeare any favors.

66 thoughts on “Bill James’ Pop Fly

  1. As someone who was born in Omaha (which isn’t in Kansas), grew up in Topeka, and now lives in the Kansas City suburbs, I have to say your midwest geography seems a bit spotty. If you’re looking for a cultural/population center near Topeka, the nearly 2M people in the metro KC area represents a larger focus for the area than the Omaha metro’s roughly 860K. Additionally, Omaha is approx 3 hours drive from Topeka whereas the KC suburbs are only about a 50 minutes away.

  2. Joe T:

    Already fixed.

    For folks coming in late, I mistakenly put Omaha into Kansas. I have since deleted all evidence of such stupidity from the article, so NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW. Except those who, you know, read the comment thread.

  3. I make the argument that a kid has a much, much better chance of making a living as a writer than as, say, an astronaut (of which there are currently something like 160 in the US). But which declared career aspiration is likely to get that kid more encouragement?

    But yeah, I love going around talking about how there are a lot more successful working writers out there than anyone seems to want to admit.

  4. Someone linked to his piece on Twitter yesterday, I think, and I made it through only four paragraphs. His suggestion that there are only two reasons for there to be more literary talent in London in the 16th Century than in Topeka today — either it was a random cluster of talent in London, or there’s talent everywhere, but undeveloped and neglected — completely ignores what you quickly pointed out: talent clusters not randomly but in the places it’s likely to be perceived as most valuable.

    Also, anecdotally: I went to elementary school in Dunlap, California, nobody’s idea of a cultural mecca, and got all kind of encouragement from very early on, including scholarships and the school publishing some of my work and shelving it in the school library, which, I gotta say, really legitimized the idea of a career as a writer for me. (And I still didn’t write a publishable book till I was thirty.)

  5. I’ve been a devoted Bill James follower ever since his Baseball Abstracts were picked up by a publisher in 1982, and have read just about everything he’s written. Even pay to subscribe to his web site. The Slate article was not his finest moment.

  6. Shakespeare was never particularly rich. I’d guess the top tier playwrights in the US today earn a better living than Shakespeare did, comparatively speaking. People “back then” might have celebrated writing more back then, but the modern age is the first where a writing career could make you the richest woman in England.

  7. Where you hear this argument a lot is in the context of athletic scholarships. There is a common misconception that athletics gets more scholarship money than academics. I work for a Big-10 University, one of those big-time sports schools. This year they will give out $6.125M in athletic scholarships and $36M in academic scholarships and fellowships. That is not counting another $60M in need-based financial aid. And, that is what is coming directly from a public University. Outside scholarships likely double those numbers. Also, athletics must completely pay for itself. They receive no revenue from the University general fund at all. For all practical purposes, football and basketball pay for all of the other sports.

    As for “identifying and encouraging” talent, there is no doubt that a massively larger effort goes on at my school to identify and encourage applications from academically strong students than to recruit the 200 or so student athletes each year, most of whom do not receive scholarships. Between the Honors college, professorial assistants, tuition wavers, and numerous other programs targeting the best and brightest, the numbers likely dwarf the number of recruited student athletes at an order of magnitude.

    Then, there is the question of developing writers. I’m uncertain as to what England did to identify and encourage Shakespeare, so this seems a silly comparison. But, there are scholarships specifically for creative writing, journalism, and other fields leading to professional writing. There are not as many as for Engineering, but are we suffering a shortage of writers right now that I was unaware of?

  8. I think it’s somewhat funny that you’re challenging Bill James on cherrypicking stats. Not because you’re wrong–not having read the piece it sounds like your criticism is spot on–but because James is generally considered the father of sabermetrics, the push for better statistical analysis in baseball.

  9. A happy intersection of two of my favorite authors (can we get Charlie Stross’s thoughts on this?) sadly wrecked by Mr. James’s bad argument. He tried this one once before I didn’t buy it then.

    London in 1600 is more like Silicon Valley in 1985 or 1975 perhaps. 300 years from now they will marvel how the big hitters (see what I did there?) of computing were all at one place at one time.

  10. Dave Smith:

    Indeed, and I note the irony in the actual entry. Bill James is a genius in many ways, but this particular article doesn’t show it very well.

  11. I’m not sure you need more ammo to support your argument and #12 is certainly a wonderful bit of info, but here I’ll throw out something anecdotal that further throws a wrench into his argument.

    Davison, Michigan, my home town. When I grew up, a population of about 8,000, give or take. Probably hasn’t changed much. Aside from Mark Terry (moi), who is a full-time freelance writer, editor, novelist and ghostwriter, a woman by the name of Anne Stanton, who is a few years older than me, is also from Davison and has worked for several years off and on as a freelance writer. Furthermore, there’s another gent from my small town named Michael Moore, who you might have heard of. He’s a New York Times bestseller, filmmaker, political commentator, etc.

    I don’t, actually, doubt that if I were to hunt around I’d find other freelancers and professional writers from Davison, Michigan. I can think of at least one other just off the top of my head.

    Professional athletes? One that I’m aware of, Ken Morrow, best known for being in the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team who later played for the New York Islanders. It’s possible there are others over the small town’s history.

    Perhaps a better question is: What’s so special about Davison, Michigan that it created such a larger proportion of professional writers to professional athletes?

    Or perhaps, the whole argument is nonsense.

  12. I think that Mr. James has perhaps been working with statistics long enough to forget that they are not in themselves arguments.

    Yes, it’s a complete statistical truth that over half of all auto accidents occur within 25 miles of home, but that is not an argument for moving to another town.

  13. I doubt there were even a handful of professional athletes in Shakespeare’s day. This probably produces some wonderfully misleading numbers when comparing growth in the two fields.

  14. If I ever start a band (or finally put some of the Victorian Chicks in Space ideas on paper, erm, in the computer (I mean, I’ve had Word open since the Holidays. Just have to start tapping the keys), Topeka Shakespeare is it, as far as great names go.

  15. How can any numb nut draw comparisions between baseball and writing anyway?

    Baseball is a standardised game played by a team of players and cannot get by just relying on the merits of just one lone individual – irrespective of whether they are from Omaha or Arkinsaw (neither of which I know due to not being based in America). Certainly it makes no sense to compare things based on geography or population – unless, of course, we are talking about a population with a high literacy who are crying out for content. With the overload of information freely available on the Internet in audio-visual format, would there be anywhere in America these days that has that?

    In any case, you cannot compare a writer with a baseball player. A lone baseball player can get by with simply being fit and good at at a number of activities, but with limited need to know how the overall game is played. They are more like an actor or character in the book than the one who writes or produces it.

    In short, it ain’t the player that is creative in the game of baseball – if you are going to compare the two at all – and so it’d probably be best to compare successful baseball coaches or managers with writers.

    After all, as far as I understand it, the coaches or managers are the guys who are looking at creativeness in the field and how to vary the way that the players, like characters in a story, can best be mixed to play the game to the best of their individual abilities in order to win it or make a difference to the outcome.

    Indeed, given that it is a team game, it ought not matter how good one individual is as there should always scope for an underdog – as it’s just about pitching the right players against the opposition so that they cannot play the game as good as they might otherwise do if no creativity comes into it. After that, that oughta be what keeps us – the audience – interested. Certainly a major league team would generally be expected to triumph over a lower league team – and so there is a question of standards, and training to get there. That may be where the problem is with writing – a mix of the write (sic) standards and training (and it not necessarily being just on spelling or correct use of the word?)

    Certainly, as primarily an observer (aka reader) rather than writer myself, no two pieces of writing can or ought to be written in the same way for too long or too often – just like no two baseball games should (or could?) be played the same way every time.

    In any case, if the baseball and writing are performed the same way then the audience – who it is all about (right?) – will simply loses interest. At least in baseball, it takes two teams to tango – if you’ll pardon the pun – and so any one team that tries to play the same game each time will no doubt have their game figured out and countered by another before the season is out. Even that latter scenario makes things watchable in the baseball stakes – but too much writing to a formula will probably put the reader off after a while (but that’s what editors and publishers are for, right?)

    Anyhow, this is how I believe the this comparison between an art and a sport should be compared.

  16. I rarely, if ever, read Slate. What am I missing?

    (not snark, I’m asking. But your discussion here doesn’t do much to convince me to read it more often)

  17. Just to pile on, I think it would be useful for James to ask himself when, exactly, it was that London (with noted caveats) produced it’s last Shakespere.

  18. Gah, the iPad sucks for commenting. I do know the difference between it’s and its. My iPad, however, doesn’t.

  19. Since astronauts have been brought up:

    I have a child who is currently a college freshman and wants to be, guess what, an astronaut. I figure if you aim at being an astronaut and miss, you end up qualified for a good many interesting and well-paying jobs. This is, to my mind, preferable to what happens if you aim at becoming a professional athlete and miss. (For a start, if you’re female, you have a pretty substantial chance of wrecking your knees before you get out of high school.) Similarly, if you want to be a full-time professional writer and you don’t make the cut, the work you’ve put in will at least enhance your communications skills, which can come in handy in all sorts of ways, on and off the job.

  20. Dear Mr. Scalzi,

    Despite having to wipe the masticated Good and Fruity from the screen of my laptop, I want to thank you for this tribute, “both he and I have played in our respective field’s equivalent of “The Show.” It’s a simple game: You write the book, you print the book, you sell the book. I’m just here to help the publishing house, and God willing, everything will work out,” which I found hysterical.

    As you say, the article argument appears to be a travesty. As a high school teacher I think the operative argument here is not the actual stats, but the perceived ones. Students are very aware of sport salaries, and (IMO) have an inflated idea of the lower, Journeyman status salaries as a result. They see and know hundreds of professional athletes, but tend not to think of any writing jobs except the bestseller ones, and newspaper writers. As a result they assume a far lower number of writing jobs, and do not have any idea of salary, but “know” it’s less that the several million of a professional sport contract. Add to that the fact that in budget crises, high schools dump academic programs to be able to continue offering sports, and there does seem to be a perception among students that while sports, acting, and writing careers are all long-shots, acting and sports pay out large salaries to a much larger percentage of the professionals than writing does.

  21. @TomG: Oh, not a whole lot. By and large, a lot of it’s this type of piece. There are some good authors and bloggers, like Dahlia Lithwick, Tom Scocca, and Dave Weigel. But it really isn’t worth reading with any frequency.

  22. Tara Maya:

    “I didn’t realize that you were also an alum of Claremont High”

    I’m not. I went to Webb. But I had friends at Claremont High, of course.

  23. Actually, I recall quite a lot of encouragement and enrichment of writing talent when I was in school. My city sponsored a creative writing contest that I placed in a couple of times. There were also after-school clubs, pull-out programs, and many other opportunities for young writers to receive encouragement and tutoring. Taking a fifteen-year cohort around my age, I know of two professional writers that came from my city (including myself). There are probably more. I also know of two professional athletes that came from my city. One of them is Magic Johnson (I don’t know him personally–he graduated from a different high school). There are probably more of those, too. But having just come up with those examples off the top of my head, it seems like it comes out pretty even. I am sure that Lansing, Michigan is pretty equivalent to Topeka, Kansas, culturally. So, there. Ha! Also, the other writer and I have both moved to areas with much higher numbers of per capita writing professionals.

  24. I’m not a fan of the argument that James lays out. It seems like he’s comparing oranges to monkeys. Wouldn’t a fairer comparision be to compare British writers to English writers? His thesis doesn’t have correlation or causation.

    Also, as a lot of people pointed out, Shakespeare wasn’t earning large amounts of money. His success doesn’t compare to sports stars of today.

    No one’s ever told me to write for a certain amount of time (ie 10 to 20 years) in order to gain recognition. Maybe I didn’t grasp the context, but as far as I know, no one is going to magically hand me a book deal, automatically, when I’ve logged in enough time writing. And why would that garner, as the author put it, “a little bit of recognition?”

    I’m rehashing a lot of things people already pointed out. I like the way you refuted this.

  25. What James does best is look at things from an odd perspective. Sometimes that results in spectacular insight, and sometimes it’s a complete whiff. This particular article is on the complete whiff side of the continuum, but if you’ve never read any Bill James, I do recommend checking him out. He’s a good writer, and has a well-deserved reputation for completely changing the way baseball statistics are approached now.

  26. I’m with Jack. Are there performance-enhancing substances for writing? I bet Timothy Leary would say yes.

    And I need some, because hey: an out-of-the-park novel? Yeah, baby.

  27. Just a couple of notes on Shakespeare and the careers of Elizabethan playwrights, apropos of nothing except that they further chip away at the argument:

    –Shakespeare actually did make a ton of money that allowed him to return to Stratford and retire in style. But he did it by owning shares of the playhouses where he wrote/acted/etc., not from his writing. This is how most of the Elizabethan theater folk made lots of money.

    –At the time, playwrighting was considered hack work and not real literature. Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, et. al. weren’t nurtured or rewarded for their writing talent. They were more like the modern equivalent of TV producers/writers/etc. They got paid for entertaining the masses.

    –The folks who were considered the _real_ literary giants of the day — John Donne, Edmund Spenser, and a bunch of guys most people haven’t heard of these days — all had other jobs. In fact, writing for a living was considered demeaning and beneath the true noble and intellectual classes.

    –So, yeah, not a great comparison…

  28. I live outside Portland, Oregon. You can’t swing a dead marmot without hitting a writer in Oregon. They breed like rodents around here. Maybe it’s the rain…?? Just sayin’… I love it, BTW. We have Willamette Writers and the U of O and all kinds of great reasons to be a writer in Oregon.

    Just because there aren’t a lot of writers in Omaha doesn’t mean there aren’t good to great writers in America. Very strange comparison, I must say…

  29. I also think him saying that Topeka should be producing a Dickens or Shakespeare every two decades or so is completely off. He’s saying that they should produce world class writers every two decades?!?! Even London didn’t produce that many quality writers every two decades! And Topeka doesn’t produce that level of talent that often either. If it did, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Sandy Koufax or players of THAT level would be coming from one town! The professional atheletes coming from Topeka aren’t of that quality every two decades last time I checked. It has taken a huge country to produce that talent that often.

  30. John, not to dogpile on, (o.k., maybe a little) there is a hilarious Groucho Marx song for you to hear called “There’s a place called Omaha Nebraska(in the foothills of Tennessee)”. And your take on James’ essay was spot on. Writing is frequently a lonely craft, as opposed to the social worlds of sports. We learn -if we’re lucky-with the help of teachers at every level & writers groups to take our work closer to publication. However, while I have paid money to cheer for high school and college athletes I have never paid to hear amateur writers. Apples to apples? Like an earlier poster stated, and others have said better, these aren’t equal vocations. ( And Groucho was singing tongue in cheek about Omaha.)

  31. Failed comparison from the get-go. The population of London in Shakespeare’s time was about twice that of Topeka today, 125K vs 230K. London’s been around a couple of millenium, Topeka less than two centuries.

    And so on.

  32. Honestly, I’m not really sure that making a fuss over writers in high school and dedicating resources to them in the same way we do for athletes would be productive, at all. Matt @#22 has the right of it, I think.

    You just can’t compare the two in any useful way.

  33. Aside from the clearly superior logic you used, once you tossed in a “Bull Durham” reference I was putty in your hands. If you had snuck in the word “lollygaggers” as well, this would have been one for the record books.

  34. I was reading Blackout by Connie Willis earlier today. A Small extract:
    “Omaha. That’s in Kansas, isn’t it?”
    “Nebraska.”

  35. Writers don’t need encouragement. Many of them need to be discouraged with a hammer lest they commit further fiction (present company excepted). What they need is better critical skills.

    Shakespeare was pretty damn good, but he and a lot of historical writers gain a lot of their fame from being pioneers in their fields. It’s a lot harder these days to do something novel, now that people have been experimenting with different forms for centuries. There are probably any number of writers writing today, who are as skilled as most of the “classic” writers of yore; their work just doesn’t stand out as much against the much busier background. A much larger part of the population is educated enough and has enough leisure to home their writing skills, who in the past might have been needed to grow food and shovel horse poop off the streets.

    If Hamlet were published today (for the first time), people would complain that it’s too long and aimless, and that the protagonist is a wimp who spends the whole play making up his mind. And a lot of the comedies aren’t particularly better than, say, “The Truth About Cats and Dogs.”

    We should also mention that it’s not always easy to tell who the greats are during their lifetimes; history is rife with great artists who died in poverty. We often don’t know they were great until their work is still being appreciated a century later.

  36. It’s a simple game: You write the book, you print the book, you sell the book. I’m just here to help the publishing house, and God willing, everything will work out.

    But would you rather be called Crash or Nuke?

  37. You’d think the example of George Will might have made Bill James shy away from the “if I know baseball, I can confidently shoot my mouth off about everything else in the world” model.

  38. I don’t believe you about the not taking steroids. As evidence, I submit the word, “Drindelthengenflagenmorden.”

  39. Outstanding blog entry John. I did not expect that when I came to your site today.

    One thing, I want to point out for your readers. Bill James revolutionized the use of statistics in baseball. He has radically changed how baseball teams analyze players performance. I know you are not attacking that, but some readers may miss that.

    It is very interesting that he missed on your points. The kinds of in depth analysis you did, is the kind of thing, you often see James doing in his work. The kind of criticisms you have of his work are very similiar to criticisms that James had of Major League Baseball management. I am surprised that he missed this.

    I think it would be very interesting if he could some how find out about this entry. I would like to see what he has to say about it.

  40. In light of having read some of Bill James’ actual writing on statistics, I wouldn’t say this Slate article even qualifies to be described that way. It talks about numbers in a population, yes, but only a single pair chosen to be easily pictured for comparison. In short, it’s at best a metaphor, not an analysis.

  41. It’s a simple game: You write the book, you print the book, you sell the book. I’m just here to help the publishing house, and God willing, everything will work out,”

    Some days you get published, some days you get rejected. Some days your hard drive crashes…

  42. One minor quibble: Marlowe was born and raised in Canterbury. He went to Cambridge to get his degrees (and become a member of her majesties’ secret service.)

  43. One thing that I have been thinking about with regards to this, did people in Shakespeare’s time have any inkling that his work would still be performed 400+ years into the future?

    It seems like asking the question, “Why haven’t we (or Topeka) made a Shakespeare?” would not be something we could answer definitively without access to a time machine. From my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Shakespeare is that his work was not well regarded by the critics of the day, leading me to a thought experiment wherein the collected works of Chuck Lorre are performed 400 years hence. A revival of Roseanne or The Big Bang Theory perhaps?

  44. re comments 12 @ 41:
    I believe there is a perception that universities support athletics over academics – there are little if any academic scholarships available for incoming freshman at public universities, universities don’t have high profile recruiters for academia at the undergrad level etc. #12 mentioned tuition waivers/ fellowships etc. – I supect these are mostly for master’s/ PH.D. candidates and not undergrads.

    I’ve had heated discussions w/ friends of mine – I am of the opinion that NCAA sports are corrupt and exploit students – yes, there are those that “win the lotto” i.e. either get an education where otherwise there would not be an oppertunity, or get into “the show” but it seems that the many choose to be either a student or an athelete – and if they get injured or just don’t get drafted into a pro team – then what??

  45. Woot for technical writers! Our average salaries are closer to the professional athlete level than I ever expected. Now if the cost of living in the DC area would only go down….

  46. The other thing we miss when we venerate Shakespeare is that he wrote a lot of just okay plays. We remember the brilliant stuff, of course, but even that wasn’t as good when he first wrote it. Take Hamlet. The extant texts differ greatly from one another. History has edited his work, and we get the “good parts” version.

  47. there might have been many outstanding athletes in Shakespeare’s time as well, but apparently all of the writers were doing sonnets and the like, so we didn’t hear about them.

  48. @jasonmitchell “#12 mentioned tuition waivers/ fellowships etc. – I supect these are mostly for master’s/ PH.D. candidates and not undergrads.”

    Actually, these are mostly for undergrads. About 1/3 of the money is for graduate students. Remember also, this is what the University directly contributes from the General Fund to scholarships. There’s a lot more in the way of external scholarships.

    “there are little if any academic scholarships available for incoming freshman at public universities, universities don’t have high profile recruiters for academia at the undergrad level”

    Nonsense! Okay, no “high profile recruiters”, but my Big 10 public University makes a large number of scholarships to incoming freshmen and has an active recruiting staff. Most scholarships are actually awarded to incoming freshmen. Nearly all major Universities have a recruiting staff. My daughter will soon graduate from high school and she is bombarded with mail, email, and phone calls from Universities. She is not an athlete! We have a staff that goes to many parts of the country to attract out-of-state students and a larger group that runs around the state all year. My nephew attended the University of Illinois on a full ride scholarship from day one: all tuition, room, and board. He was not an athlete, either. But, he did get a perfect score on the SAT and ACT tests. He is now a Ph.D. They cared just as much about recruiting him as some high school football star.

    Every major University cares a lot about their ranking. Bringing in and retaining students with high GPA’s and high test scores increases the ranking, so we can bring in more students with high GPA’s and test scores. They work very hard to bring in the better students and have to compete pretty hard.

    At any major sports school you will find that athletics is like an island. They give out a lot of scholarships, sure, but they have to support them themselves. Our athletic department gets no money from the general fund at all.

  49. @JediBear: “Stray related thought: How many dollars are there out there in writing scholarships? How many in athletic scholarships?”

    This is not a reasonable comparison. A better comparison would be: How many dollars are there out there in writing scholarships? How many in volleyball scholarships? If you pick a sport with about the same percentage of students as, say, all writing fields (creative writing, journalism, etc) I’ll bet you will find that are a lot more dollars for writing scholarships than athletics. Most student athletes receive only partial scholarships and many receive nothing at all. There’s not enough money for everyone to be funded. So, maybe 3-4 volleyball players have a full scholarship at any one time. I’m sure we have at least 10 major scholarships in writing-related fields (particularly in journalism) and many, many more smaller ones.

  50. On the we-should-put-more-effort-into-our-writers-so-we-get-the-younger matter: no, we shouldn’t. Oh, we do need some young writers, to catch the zeitgeist of the moment. But we also need writers who have had other experiences in life than being a writer. Spending time as a barrista or a barrister or a computer programmer or a sex surrogate will not make one a better baseball player, but it will make one a better-informed writer. And to serve the general culture better, we do not want all of our writers to have been boiled up through the same process. As much as I may admire some great fiction about being a writer, if the only understanding at the heart of all of our writing is what it’s like to be a writer, we would have a tepid culture that would serve few but its creators.

  51. i don’t know what things are like in topeka these days…

    but here in los angeles, the little league teams have to
    send out a player after the bottom of each inning to do
    a poetry slam against the opposing player. it’s radical…

    -bowerbird

    p.s. the only bad part is the dads who take it too seriously.

  52. Pethaps it’s the eggnog, but i found mysrlf reading this entry in the voice of a gentrified englishman. Cheerio

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