Bill James is a great statistician and guru to many a stats-nerd (and Boston Red Sox fan), but his much-read Slate article (an excerpt from his new book), about why America produces great athletes but not great writers, is wrong in its premise and its conclusion.
James posits that the reason we don’t produce great writers is 1) lack of economic incentive, and 2) lack of targeting at a young age — which is all well and good.
But he gets tripped up when he starts making the strained comparison between writers and sportsmen:
The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.
Alas, a major league player ain’t Shakespeare. Only every so often are “great” players created whose marginal utility is substantially higher than their contemporaries. How often does Topeka produce an all-time great, or even an All-Star? Correct answer: Never. Despite all the targeting, training, competition, etc., Topeka can’t do it. Why not? Maybe because talent in a field of increasing competition, with an ever-broadening base of players to choose from (with the opening of international markets), simply isn’t enough. (For what it’s worth, I’d say Topeka has produced a few authors who would arguably make an All-Star team: Gwendolyn Brooks, Jane Heap, and of course, Bill James. Topeka also produced the band Kansas, so they’ve got that going for them.)
Furthermore, there are gads of talented writers in America. Pick up your average Harper’s, or New Yorker, or National Review, and you can read tons of pretty good writing — “major league,” even. How many athletes in America can say they “make their living” from their profession, compared with the number that can say they do similarly with writing, be it journalistic, self-help, fiction, or whatever else is out there? Writing isn’t the most vibrant profession out there, but many people do it for a living. 275,000 new book titles are published each year — more than all the games in all the leagues in professional sports.*
Unlike baseball, it’s hard to tell whether a writer is “good” or not until after their careers end. Shakespeare’s plays had limited critical respect at the time (resulting in misprints, mistakes, multiple versions, etc.), and his reputation grew posthumously. Evaluating writers is similarly difficult. I can look up Willie Stargell’s OPS+; I can’t look up Jack London’s. Good writers often toil in anonymity; good ballplayers are scouted and make the majors. Athletes peak younger, writers peak at various times and various places. (As an aside, James points out that sports admitted blacks before most of society, but writing admitted them long before. Frederick Douglass, WEB Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, etc. all wrote bestselling books in the 19th century, and the Harlem Renaissance predates Jackie Robinson by 25 years.)
I agree with James that we need more cultivation of writing talent, but I question his contention that there isn’t a lot already. Schools have libraries, newspapers, writing contests, required reading and of course, regular writing and English classes. Certainly these resources could be better-funded, but the idea that America is just bad at producing writers is silly on its face and sillier because of the apples-to-oranges comparison of writers to athletes.
*not sure on the math, but it’s probably not even close