New Frontiers in Fiction: the Sporting Novel

We’ve just got over the highs and lows of Wimbledon – Andy Murray’s nailbiting firstround win, Emma Raducanu’s meteoric rise, and emotional withdrawl, Roger Federer’s potential last match on centre court, and the next gen fighting to break through the reigning champion Djokovic. The bad boy of tennis, Nick Kyrgios was sailing through the rounds after having played no matches for roughly a year and calling his time in London for the Grand Slam ‘a holiday. Naomi Osaka was absent as she takes time out to focus on her mental health, having shaken up the sport earlier this year when she declined to give press conferences after her matches for the sake of her wellbeing. Elina Svitolina and Gael Monfils, two of the worlds’ top players were engaged.

Then there were the Euros, with a heartbreaking stopped heart in the first match, the race dramas of our societies playing out with footballers taking the knee to boos and cheers, the pressure, the joy and the pain of high stakes shoot outs.

Now we’re moving from the Olympics to the Paralympics. Tom Daley, having dealt with the loss of his father and mentor so young, carrying the weight of his own dreams and the nation’s hopes on his shoulders as he tries once more to get his hands on a gold medal. Adam Peaty, unbeaten for countless races, fighting to become the undisputed best breaststroke swimmer of all time if he can keep his cool. Punches will be thrown, the deservedness of winners will be disputed, there will be magnanimous champions and sore losers, love affairs and broken dreams. Now, the Paralympics are entertaining us with the physical excellence they showcase as well as the emotional battles that they provide a global stage for.

But we’ll be unlikely to see the next Booker Prize winner set in the Olympic village or the All England Tennis Club. The main characters that we are going to become emotionally invested in this year are most probably not going to be athletes competing at the highest level. Some of the best selling and most highly thought of books of the past decade have been set in royal courts, think of Hilary Mantel, a setting which in real life was as much about the dry workings of getting economic strategy right as it was about who is sleeping with who and who gets to keep their heads. Businessmen and women (Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis), doctors (Ian McEwan, Saturday), politicians (Daphne Du Maurier, Rule Briannia), students (Sally Rooney, Normal People), just about every ‘type’ of person can be a main character and take readers into their world. But not sports stars. For some reason they can never carry a tale.

Of course, everyone from Dickens to J.K.Rowling have featured sport in their works. There’s cricket in the Pickwick Papers and, nobody would forget, Quidditch in the Harry Potters stories. But the former appears as a brief narrative technique – there’s as much flower arranging and jewellery expertise in Dickens novels as there is sport – and the latter is one of many ways that Rowling builds an all-encompassing world – there are particular pets, sweets, drinks, bank-tellers, postal service, government positions, and, as part of that deep-fake, or fantasy-realism technique, there is also sport complete with its own rules and allegiences.

There’s always been a caricatured distinction between the jocks and the geeks, the ones who have the sporting season tickets and the ones who have the yearly library pass. But this can’t be the answer. There’s just as much distinction between a king and a reader, as there is between a cricketer and a book worm. One of the key ways in which reading works is to allow us to enter a world entirely different to our own via human connection and empathy. No matter how strange the place a story takes us, the human highs and lows and the nuances of character help us to believe even in the strangest science fiction, and feel personally invested in the tales of characters nothing like us.

But maybe J.K. Rowling’s successfully engaging creation of Quidditch offers a clue as to why a novel properly set in a sporting world cannot be universally loved. Maybe it’s that sport is too close to our hearts. We have strong tastes, we have violent preferences. Not universal enough, in fact it’s divisive. While we can all share in the wonder and the longing that Quidditch evokes – who didn’t want a go on a broomstick?! - the colour of the shirt you wear on the football pitch makes you someone’s hero or their enemy, it barely matters what virtues or vices you possess, the tribal affiliations of real world sports fans trumps it all. Set a sporting novel in Man City football club, half of Manchester, let alone the rest of the country and the world will be switched off. Or do what Philip Roth does with baseball in ‘The Great American Novel’ and alienate almost every non-American reader.

David Foster Wallace, a nearly professional tennis player as well as one of the most respected authors of the 20th and 21st centuries, comes the closest to making sport properly central. But this works alongside a deliberate emotional distancing, a classic postmodern estrangement that uses the detailed techniques of the game and the grind of regular practice regimes to flatten and elongate rather than heighten the intensity of his narrative. It seems that it is only if you take emotional distancing as a virtue that sport can take pride of place in writing.

But what theme or setting doesn't have pitfalls? Perhaps we are approaching a new frontier in fiction, when the sporting novel gets its day. Although the fact/fiction tightrope will be tight to walk in such a genre, the emotional highs and lows of sport seem to me to be an untapped resource in the well of fictional inspiration. If there are writers out there wondering how to break out of the tropes that are being done to death, maybe this is their answer...