Monday, June 13, 2011

Mad Libs, Tom Scocca, Tommy Craggs and why everything doesn't suck

It's a pity Leonard B. Stern, creator of Mad Libs, died earlier this week, as he's not around to see how his invention is still being used in the media. The most persistent offender on this front is Slate, the remarkable Internet outlet that seems to largely thrive on finding things people like and writing contrarian pieces on why they're really awful. In the past, they've taken bold stands against such horrors as pie, criticism of Creed and hand sanitizer. As Jonah Goldberg once wrote (in a piece for Slate itself, which must have set off some sort of contrarianism loop), "Freelancers especially seem to have figured out how to get through Slate's editorial defenses: Pitch a story, any story, that's counterintuitive, and someone on the receiving end will say "brilliant!" The idea seems very Mad Libs-inspired: "[Group of people] likes [noun], therefore it is [derogatory adjective]".

This approach is now spreading thanks to former Slate type Tom Scocca's new role as the managing editor of Deadspin, where he's already brought over the Mad Libs approach. In the crosshairs this time? Famed former New York restaurant Elaine's, a writer's hangout praised by the likes of Chris Jones, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Jeff MacGregor and now Grantland's Wright Thompson. If that many prominent people like something, it must be awful, right, Scocca? Right.

Normally, I probably wouldn't care about this; it's a debate over a now-closed bar I've never been to in a city I don't live in. What makes it more notable is how it fits into the larger tradition of contrarian griping; Scocca goes on to complain about how many of the Grantland pieces so far have featured personal thoughts and details from the writers, probably because some of those personal details are what make sportswriting interesting to many of us. I don't have a particular interest in the New York Knicks, but I loved the way Katie Baker described how this year's team made her feel. There are thousands of pieces out there every month on the AL East, but Chris Jones' story on losing his virginity during the 1992 World Series (and decades later, feuding with both John Farrell and Terry Francona in the same day) is one of the most interesting I've read this year. Chris Ryan's piece on the experience of the Champions League final appeals to me much more than any straightforward account of the game. There's a certain irony in Scocca complaining about "Watch the writers watch themselves," as his piece is essentially watching those writers watch themselves, but it's worth noting that writers watching themselves can be entertaining and illuminating if they're done well. Contrarian grumblers complaining about writers watching themselves, not so much.

Look, it's not that Grantland should be immune from criticism (there are plenty of things I don't like about the site and Bill Simmons, Chuck Klosterman, et al), and it's not surprising that it's Scocca and Deadspin delivering it. Scocca's the guy who's previously feuded with Jones over some pretty stupid stuff and criticized Simmons' shoes. Meanwhile, Deadspin's tendencies to go after ESPN and Simmons are not just a matter of record, but are also often for worthwhile reasons. This doesn't appear to be a worthwhile one, though, but rather more just contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism.

Sadly, Scocca's screed isn't even the most aggravating piece Deadspin has written about the site. That debatable honour goes to this rather annoying piece by Tommy Craggs, who Grantland considered hiring. Rather than even analyzing the site itself, Craggs decides to go and blast the man it's named after, Grantland Rice, one of the most renowned sportswriters of our time and one of my personal favourites, in a piece cleverly titled "Why Grantland Rice Sucked". That piece itself is an exercise in unintentional hilarity, with Craggs dropping lines like "He was responsible for a lot of the worst pathologies of sportswriting today", lines I find are far better suited to himself than Rice. Much like Scocca, I find that Craggs' writing tends to be full of rants against everyone who disagrees with him and supreme pronouncements that [thing people like] is [derogatory adjective]. It's no wonder that he doesn't like Rice, who did a superb job of illustrating and relaying the magic and wonder sports can bring. Here's Rice's memorable opening paragraph in the famous Four Horsemen piece:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

And here's what Craggs probably would have written instead:

It was a miserable day at the Polo Grounds, and the weather was reflected in the miserable play on the field. Notre Dame and Army both muddled through a display of awful offensive football, which served as a demonstration of how pointless this sport ultimately is. Hacks will write in its praise, but I, Tommy Craggs, supreme arbiter of the universe, declare that it sucked, so it did. So say we all.

In my mind, the worst pathologies of sportswriting today aren't well-crafted prose, clever historical or literary allusions, or even personal thoughts or experiences. I'm much more annoyed by the growing trend towards absolutism and establishing oneself as a supreme authority, which has carried far beyond the realms of writing criticism into everyday sports coverage. Check out the masses of NBA Finals pieces declaring the Heat as supreme villains or LeBron James' move to South Beach as an incredible failure after his team's first season ended just short of a title, or the volumes of NHL stories painting the Canucks as a bunch of goons or Canada's great hope. These pieces have several things in common; they oversimplify a complex situation, they deliver stronger allegations than they can support and they set the writer up as an authority, proclaiming that anyone who dares to disagree is wrong. You like the Heat, or you don't think LeBron's all that bad? Well, YOU'RE WRONG!

It's the same thing that bugs me with the criticisms of Grantland and Rice himself Scocca and Craggs have delivered so far. If they don't like the writing, or the writers, or ESPN itself, or literary devices applied to sports, fine; that's their right. It just gets annoying when they start tossing out royal proclamations to that extent, and complaining without any sense that their criticisms could apply to themselves with equal or more validity. They're welcome to the jaded, cynical view of the world they display, and people are welcome to enjoy it if that what floats their boat. Instead of constantly using the contrary, critical Mad Libs, though, I prefer to enjoy sports and writing for what they have to offer instead of trying to deconstruct everything I don't like about them. Pick whichever approach you like, but don't feel compelled to hate something just because a writer tells you to.

Update: I just spoke to Craggs about this by e-mail, and I need to admit I made a couple of mistakes. First, this is meant as a professional criticism, not a personal one. The original piece crossed that line in a couple of places, and has been modified accordingly. Second, I was wrong to assume motivation; I can't speak for Scocca, but Craggs points out that he personally isn't criticizing Rice to be contrarian, but rather because he doesn't like the way Rice's "anointing of gods and his habit of reducing human beings to mere playthings of personal fantasy" has hurt the way people write about sports (and other related subjects, such as players' early attempts to organize unions, which is an excellent point). That's a fair stance, even if it's one I mostly don't agree with, and it deserves to be treated on its own merits rather than as just being contrary for the sake of contrary.

It's also worth pointing out that getting mad probably isn't the best state of mind for writing. I wrote this because I was annoyed by what I saw as contrary attacks on writers, ideas and forms I hold dear, and my response probably wasn't as thoroughly thought-out as it could have been. As always, I appreciate the feedback and the discussion. I'm leaving this piece up because I think my point is still somewhat valid; in my mind, there are a lot of positive things about both Grantland Rice and the site named after him that Scocca and Craggs are overlooking. However, that doesn't mean they don't have a right to criticize, or that they don't have some points. There's room for a multitude of views, and I think this debate shows that.

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