According to the writer James Wood, one of the unique features of literary criticism is that a critic “has the privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing.” When Henry James or Toni Morrison or Elena Ferrante or Michael Chabon are writing about Michael Chabon or Elena Ferrante or Toni Morrison or Henry James, they are “producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in their so-called ‘creative’ work. They are speaking to literature in its own language, a large part of which is metaphorical.” That is all well and good if you are James Wood, Michael Chabon, or Elena Ferrante, who could no doubt write well about toothpicks, but what of the critic on the street? What of the myriad bloggers and tweeters? What of the students trying to come up with something—anything—that has not been said of Hamlet?
It’s perhaps unfair to invoke Wood when discussing literary criticism. A frequent contributor to the London Review of Books (where he’s a member of their editorial board), Wood is a top-notch critic, combining an Eco-like knowledge base with a conversational, personal writing style. What’s not unfair is to ask what anyone could say original about Hamlet. We can call up the spectre of the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin and his multitude of voices all we want, but that won’t vanquish the reality of oversaturation. Writing is difficult, and writing anything original is almost impossible, especially in a field like literary criticism, which does not have the cachet—nor the shelf life—novel writing does. And nor should it, because these critics need material to criticise, a fact worth pointing out to folks like Derrida and Foucault and just about any other cultural critic English majors endure on their way to a future in the gig economy. It is also perhaps unfair to demand originality. If it’s true there is nothing new under the sun, if everything is derivative, then we should all pack up our pens and laptops and dig into log rolling. Instead let’s call up Bakhtin again: if we are all writing as one voice, the amount of variance within that voice can be astonishing. It isn’t always good, in fact it too often isn’t, but it can be.
All this is another way of saying that if it is difficult to write compelling literary criticism, it is even more difficult to write compelling fiction. (Those who can do both, like Henry James, are outliers.) One way of looking at what Wood says about literary criticism is to examine writing fiction about something that is also fictional. Crafting fiction about fiction is possible, of course, but best left to the experts, we are told. In graduate school, for example, aspiring writers are often advised not to write novels about writing, despite ample evidence to the contrary that this seems not only acceptable but also very common. The theory is sound enough: most readers aren’t writers and don’t give a damn about the process or the people behind it. And yet, there have been dozens of successful TV shows about lawyers and doctors, and the vast majority of their viewers aren’t lawyers or doctors, so why do they care? The point? If you must tell a story about writing or a writer—if you must write fiction about fiction—do it.
Cue Emily Nemens and her debut novel The Cactus League. Set in 2011, during baseball’s mini-season known as Spring Training, the novel centers around the fallen outfielder of the Los Angeles Lions, Jason Goodyear. Somehow Los Angeles is able to support three major-league teams, as the Dodgers and Angels are still around too. Also of note is that, looking at the story from the year 2020, Goodyear’s fictional 10-year/$150 million mega contract is already almost laughably low compared to the recent real deals signed by Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Gerritt Cole, and others. Real life isn’t only stranger than fiction, but it’s also more lucrative. Though Goodyear is the main character, there is a large cast on the roster in the novel—and the book is really about Goodyear’s orbit, and the number of people he is partly responsible for, whether he likes it or not, whether or not he is even aware of it. There is the minor-league hitting coach who “doesn’t know he has to quit.” There is Goodyear’s agent and his new personal assistant. There is the obvious Susan-Sarandon-in-Bull-Durham knock-off, the middle-aged “cleat-chaser” Tami. There is the woman who works at the brand new spring home of the Lions and a mother of two, who has been squatting in various locations in the Phoenix area (including the batting coach’s house). There is one of the owners of the Lions and his experiences as a minority owner (he is black). We have the players’ wives, ex-wives, lovers, and a snapshot of the excesses of the very rich and married-to-the famous. Hot-shot rookie 18-year-olds getting exposure to major-league pitchers and injury-riddled vets at the end of the line are here too. And various other side characters, directly or tangentially related to baseball, all with their part to play.
To say The Cactus League is a “baseball novel,” however, is to consign it to the realm of genre fiction—and baseball writing is not a particularly rich field. It is also not accurate in this case. Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter isn’t as much about sportswriting as is it about everything else, and while baseball offers a convenient backdrop for Nemens, at times the novel feels too ambitious, that there is not enough baseball and its concomitant culture—that the novel is so baggy and open-ended within its white horsehide sphere we would not be surprised to see gay rights, the #metoo movement, and race relations alongside a conversation between a minority owner, a veteran center fielder, and a rising rookie.
So imagine my reaction when Nemens does combine all that in one swing—the black owner, Stephen Smith, had a one-night stand in the distant past with the star center fielder, Trey Townsend (not as bright a star as Goodyear but a star nonetheless), who has apparently turned his attentions to the new rookie outfielder, Corey Matthews, and then lied about it to his boss. Since Townsend still has three years remaining on his contract, the boss has only one option available to him: punish the cuckholding employee by trading him. And trade him he does, calling his general manager the same day he learned of Townsend’s “betrayal” and demanding the GM have him gone by the end of the day. At the risk of playing the realist card, it’s fair to ask if a book centered on baseball and one of its fallen stars is the right place to discuss improper sexual activity between a boss and his employee. Making it a same-sex scenario and placing it within the notoriously conservative culture of baseball might make it a bit more interesting, but that does not make it any more necessary to Nemens’ story.
This is not, however, a fatal blow to her novel. Goodyear’s character is so—ahem—good and the story so well drawn it makes up for the shortcomings elsewhere. The descriptions of the spring in Phoenix will have anyone who has ever gone to Spring Training at the very least checking out flights, if not hotels and specific games. Nemens weaves together the numerous characters and their stories in a more effective way than you realise as you’re reading—so much so that at the end of the novel you are left to admire the skill of her writing more than the story itself. It is reminiscent of what Eleanor Catton did in her Booker-Award winning novel The Luminaries: the book itself is good enough, but its construction is almost sublime.
It’s a good enough novel (but not a great one), which again makes us wonder: why haven’t there been more good novels written about baseball? There have been many excellent movies about the game—and two of the most well-known, The Natural and Field of Dreams, were based on novels, by Bernard Malamud and W.P. Kinsella, respectively. Much of the problem comes from the game of baseball itself, which is, to its most devoted fans and even to casual ones, a daily drama played out 162 games a year—and then comes the postseason, which takes the drama and turns it up to 11. To add more drama, as a novel must by its very nature do, raises the risk of melodrama, as we saw in The Cactus League (and not only between the owner and his employee). If we can strip away warts like advertising and the off-the-field nightmares—admittedly not an easy task—professional sports is one of the last realms of pure escape we have. It is make-believe at its extreme; whatever drama and magic happens between the lines, at the end of the day we all return to the same reality we faced before.
Something similar is at play in science fiction, whatever its form. We are asked to care about something or someone who often (but not always) has only the vaguest relationship to the real world. It would be marvelous if human beings could stretch their minds to care about something not strictly related to our existence, but this is difficult enough to do in real life, let alone in fiction. Think of the movie AI, for example. When the robot sinks to the bottom of the ocean to rust away, we are not moved at all—you are only saying to yourself “Will this never end!?! Jude Law can only do so much,” but you can practically feel Steven Spielberg tugging your arm and screaming in your ear: “Cry, damn it! See how sad this is? Look at the poor little robot!” But we don’t care. Not because we are heartless and cruel, but because we cannot get past two filters to our emotions: not only is the robot not real, the means to which we are exposed to the robot is also not real. We often overcome the latter obstacle and can care about fictional characters, but the first one—that of caring for a machine—is insurmountable. We don’t care because we can’t care. It’s the exact opposite in novels that place baseball at its core: it feels there is so much at stake we care too much, so that to mix in more drama leads us, paradoxically, to not caring.
The other problem with books about baseball is that they compete with the games themselves, which are easier to consume (although much more expensive) and, assuming you’re a fan, quite simply, better. In fact, to the lover of literature and the lover of baseball, the only way to make either experience better is to do both: go to a game with a book in your hands. And if you are able to do this in March in Arizona or Florida, you have infinity in a grain of infield dirt.