No formula holds good in every case; there are as many exceptions as rules. George Plimpton seemed to be on to something when he claimed that the smaller the ball, the better the book (golf being more productive of literature, he thought, than football). But if this were true there would be great work on squash … or marbles. And some of the best writing is inspired by ball-free pursuits: boxing, horseracing, mountaineering.
Yet even if there is no universal recipe, there are plenty of useful tips. Here are ten.
1. Tell a story. Sport is all about what-happens-next – an open-ended form of storytelling in its own right, presenting rags-to-riches parables, fairy stories, farces, thrillers, tragedies and cautionary tales, sometimes all at once. Books about sport should aspire to the same sort of narrative excitement. Triumph and disaster should remain in play until the final whistle. Otherwise it is just wrestling.
2. Tell a larger story. While the game, the race or the tournament is afoot, sport can seem all-encompassing. But the best books manage to place sport in a larger frame. Laura Hildebrand’s Seabiscuit was a portrait of depression-era America; C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary saw cricket as an expression of West Indian cultural identity; Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch rummaged around the mental store room of a football fan. All saw sport as something that rippled beyond mere winning and losing.
3. Have a central character. Imitate the action of the traditional novel by narrating the trials and tribulations of an individual life. It might be a charismatic player (as in Open by André Agassi or King of the World - a book on Muhammad Ali by David Remnick) but the lead character can also be a horse, a fan, a trophy, a venue, even a book. It is not easy for stories about team sports to attain the level of human drama that belongs to individual adventures. Banter dilutes the existential dimension somehow.
4. Take us behind the scenes. John Feinstein’s A Good Walk Spoiled gave us an expert guided tour of elite golf, all private jets and chewed fingernails; Tyler Hamilton exposed the shenanigans of top-class cycling in The Secret Race; and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball aimed a torch at the commercial realities of major league sport. Readers love to peek through the curtains of what we see on television to glimpse real stories, real voices. The truth, we suspect, rarely comes out in press conferences.
5. Look behind you. Modern sports pages have become promotional vehicles: today’s newspapers describe tomorrow’s games. Live TV coverage has replaced ordinary reporting, leaving a gap in the market for detailed retellings. Pete Davies’s All Played Out let readers relive the 1990 World Cup, just as Mark Frost’s The Greatest Game Ever Played provided them with a blow-by-blow account of an unbelievable golf tournament: the 1913 US Open. Sport is theatre, so dramatise, dramatise.
6. Write about sport as if it matters greatly – and also not at all. Its struggles are only figuratively life-or-death, and failure is just as gripping as success. It is in these gaps (between sport’s importance and its triviality) that irony and humour can take root and ripen. As John Updike wrote, thinking of the delusions in golf: “what other pastime can chasten a magnate with so wide a variety of disappointments”.
7. Strive to avoid back-page jargon. Sports punditry is dominated by ex-pros who agree that everything is the referee’s fault, and articulate this in terms that have already been much parodied. So it is important to refresh the vocabulary. Not every opportunity has to be “golden”; not all penalties are “hotly disputed”. In fleeing from these, it is also important also to avoid the language of art criticism. Banging on about beauty, the sublime and the paradoxical sounds boastful when the subject is … darts.
8. Accept your niche. In the name of populism it is tempting to woo readers who don’t care for sport with populist or self-deprecating gestures. But aiming a book about motor racing or boxing at people who dislike such pursuits will only alienate those who might have enjoyed it, while failing to engage the attention of the non-interested. By the same token, never talk down to readers: safer to assume that they know more about this than you ever will (especially if you write about cricket).
9. Break some or all of the above rules, when necessary. Mike Brearley’s The Art of Captaincy is a self-help manual; Giles Smith’s Roy: The Official Autobiography is a spoof memoir of a cartoon character; Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me is a long and boozy interview (with Brian Clough). None of these tick the usual boxes; all would have been several categories weaker if they had.
10. There must be a tenth rule, but for the moment it eludes me. In sport, as in life, something is always hidden.
Robert Winder’s most recent book is Half-Time: the Glorious Summer of 1934 (Bloomsbury).