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.