I've written several novels about athletes—writing about winning and losing is the most difficult partby Benjamin Markovits / November 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
At the end of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, the robber Macheath stands ready to be hanged. He is guilty as charged, but at the last minute his reprieve arrives on horseback, a pardon from the king. “So that at least in the opera we can witness,” runs the commentary, “mercy, for once, take priority over justice.”
We see these reprieves in sports all the time. Manchester United used to make a habit of them—including those two injury-time goals against Bayern Munich that won them the Champions League in 1999. I was a grad student watching the match in the college bar and I remember the sudden release of tension, also known as joy. Also, a lot of spilled beer.
But if Liverpool’s comeback against Barcelona in last year’s Champions League semi-final had been scripted, it would have inspired very little response. There was no last-minute winner—the drama was gradual. Even if you made a movie of the events, after the fact, how could you recreate the intensity that Liverpool fans felt watching the goals unfold? At best you might be able to give the kind of pleasure you get from a scratched itch.
Good art is supposed to make the outcome of a story seem somehow both inevitable and surprising. It demands a strange kind of balance: if the ending is too inevitable, we get bored. If it’s too surprising, though, a sort of meaninglessness creeps in—the outcome seems to bear no relation to the build-up. In Nightmare Abbey, by Thomas Love Peacock, a landscape gardener explains his first principles: “I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness.” “Pray, sir,” comes the response: “By what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?”
Which is why it’s so difficult when you fictionalise sports to capture the essential element that makes it worth watching on TV: uncertainty. Writers sometimes talk about the way that characters take over the plot, as if they had their own independent wills. But I’ve always been suspicious of any account of novel-creation that makes it seem magical—stories that make the tellers look good are stories I distrust. Also, it’s the kind of excuse a dog-owner might make whose labrador just ate your picnic: I have no control. You feel like the appropriate response should be: “get control.”
And yet when I play sport I’m also aware of intimations of inevitability. Sometimes you know beforehand the ball just won’t go in. Sometimes you also know, I got these guys, I can take this. There’s a certain amount of confirmation bias: we remember afterward the inklings that get justified by events and forget the ones that don’t. But athletes are also people who are trained or selected for their sensitivity to mechanical processes, which include the workings of their own bodies and psychologies. One of the reasons we play sport is to feel in touch with the forces inside us that produce outcomes.
I’ve written three or four novels about athletes now, and in each one have had to deal with the problem of winning and losing—trying to make it seem like, don’t blame me for what happened; I have no control. If the reader thinks “the writer just wanted that to happen,” it takes away from the virtue (or shortcomings) of the character. What moves us about sport is the sense we have, when a moment is seized, when Solskjaer sticks out a foot to deflect in Sheringham’s header and win the Champions League, that a lifetime of effort, a childhood of cold muddy afternoons, an adulthood of relentless training, has prepared him for this incredibly fleeting chance to express the purpose of all that effort.
Because sports and fiction really deal in the same uncertainty—the complicated relationship between who we are and what we do. One solution (from a writer’s point of view) is to freeze those crucial moments, like a photograph, just before the ball reaches the rim or touches the line, so that the player seems to exist in a pure state, untainted or unshaped by success or failure. Hard to live that way, though.