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Accepting Life as a Hack While Appreciating the Work of Brian Phillips

Appreciating the work of Brian Phillips

October 30, 2015: With the news that Grantland.com has been shut down by ESPN, I’ve decided to publish this piece immediately (rather than next month, as originally scheduled), since I refer to articles which may or may not remain on the web for much longer.  Hopefully, ESPN keeps the site up and the links below will still work.  If not, you’ll only get a small taste of the writing I’m referencing.

I’ve enjoyed writing a bit more since the new site and this blog started up, but I have no illusions about my future as a writer and story-teller.  I consider myself a competent wordsmith–since childhood I’ve continued to read a lot and therefore have a solid grasp of grammar and language–but producing interesting narratives remains a challenge I may never fully overcome.

In spite of my own shortcomings, I certainly can appreciate others’ good writing.  One’s taste and level of sophistication probably dictates which writing is considered “good,” I suppose.  It’s a subjective description, as with any form of art that’s open to criticism and public consumption.  Years ago I read a novel by respected fantasy author Gene Wolfe, considered by some to have produced some of the better fantasy works of the 20th century.  Wikipedia notes that Wolfe is known for his “dense, allusive prose.”  A perfect description.  In the case of his book, I could tell he was a skilled writer–the language proved it–but it was so dense that I felt the narrative continuously bogged down to a slow crawl as I tried to navigate each paragraph.  I could respect the craftsmanship, but it was hard to admire and enjoy it as good writing.

I occasionally come across similar examples in journalism.  Prize-winning writers can churn out overwrought articles which are more of a slog than a treat.  A good example is some of the content found on one of my favorite websites: Grantland.com 1.

The site was founded by Bill Simmons (a sports writer whose legacy as a producer and creative media force may eventually be more pronounced than that of his columns) as a mash-up of sports and entertainment writing.  Simmons wisely gave free rein to a number of talented writers, some of whom were popular and well-established, others who were young, fresh and unknown.  Among the former was Pulitzer winner Wesley Morris 2.  As a fan of film, I pay attention to movie reviews, including Morris’s columns on Grantland.  He, like Gene Wolfe, has been lauded for his prose.  A Wesley Morris column is more philosophical than your usual film critique.  While writing about cinema, and sometimes television, Morris may end up spending more time discussing something other than film or television.  But it’s often a dense (there’s that word again), rambling train of thought.  Skillful?  Sure.  Good?  I think so.  Accessible?  Not always.

Perhaps I’m simply not a deep thinker.  Actually, no.  That’s not it.  I’m sentimental.  I admit that I cry during some movies.  I write articles like this.  So I do have my deep moments.  Maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough to appreciate the most flowery prose.  That would make more sense.  I’m probably too laid back (and slightly lazy) to suffer books and articles that require too much effort.  But I can still recognize and appreciate artful writing, especially when it goes down smoothly.

Which brings me to Brian Phillips.

It’s easy for me to cite authors and writers whose work doesn’t connect.  But the whole reason for this post is to discuss work I do admire (the fact that it took four paragraphs to get to this point just proved my assertion about not having a future in writing, didn’t it?).  The reason I brought up Grantland is because Phillips, like Morris, happens to be a major contributor to that site.  Unlike Morris’s essays or Grandland TV critic Andy Greenwald’s smart (and accurate) but metaphorically-saturated reviews, Phillips seems to have a knack for presenting some deep thoughts without upsetting the balance between art and readability.

So this is just my roundabout way of saying, “read Brian Phillips when you get a chance.”  I made a promise to myself that I’d spotlight good music, art, film and literature on the blog from time to time, so I felt it would be appropriate to share a couple of passages from Phillips that have stuck with me.

The column that inspired me to write this piece was Phillips’ reaction to Novak Djokovic’s victory at the US Open.  Yup, a tennis article.  Hey, I didn’t say anything about the subjects of his columns being mainstream or popular, especially among US audiences.  But more often than not, Phillips makes even more mundane sports and subjects just a little more interesting.  It should be noted that I played tennis in high school, so I’m not ripping the sport as boring, but in my busy adult life it occupies even less of my attention than other mainstream sports.  So it’s not often I read about tennis these days.  It’s less often that I read truly compelling writing about the sport.

Phillips discusses the greatness of Djokovic, a player struggling to earn the public’s respect and rooting interest in spite of his recent dominance over more popular rivals Rodger Federer, Raphael Nadal and Andy Murray:

Seriously, what are Novak’s weaknesses at this point? He’s become the mentally strongest mentally fragile athlete I’ve ever seen. I think the crowd still gets to him, I think he still wants to be embraced and celebrated in a way he hasn’t quite been, but somehow he’s figured out how to turn even his vulnerability into a source of brilliant tennis. After a great shot he’ll flash that look of wounded, nostril-flared, defiant, pleading supremacy, like: You hurt me into playing like this.

I watched the US Open match, after seeing Djoker dismantle crowd-favorite Federer at Wimbledon under similar circumstances.  Phillips (or anyone else) couldn’t have described Djokovic better.  You hurt me into playing like this.  Despite my familiarity with the game, I felt like I had a clearer understanding of the performance I’d just witnessed.

Phillips wrote a poignant piece following the conclusion of another major sporting event, last year’s world cup.  This one is probably a little deeper than the Djokovic article, and certainly more sentimental.

After he flashes glimpses of today’s soccer stars in their younger days, Phillips concludes the world cup piece with one of my favorite passages that I’ve read in a sports column:

Something I’ve noticed since I entered my mid-thirties is that no one ever looks the right age anymore. When I see friends I’ve known for years, they’re always a little older than I expect, a little different from the images I’m carrying around in my head. But when I see old pictures of them, pictures from the time when those mental images ought to originate, they look astoundingly, impossibly young. No one was ever as young as they look. They look like elves with goofy hair. So what am I picturing when I think of them? Something that never really existed, probably. Something both finished and unfinished, a story I’ve told myself.

Phillips’ thoughts on the tournament and sport itself are probably a little much for the casual sports fan, but to me the tone is just right.  It helps that I’m a sap.  I like to philosophize about sports as well, after all, and the childhood photos of the World Cup participants may have indirectly inspired my visual allegory of my own evolution as a sports fan.

Brian Phillips is a deep thinker (even when it comes to the Terrifying Octopus Parade at Disneyland!).  But unlike myself, and thankfully unlike Gene Wolfe, he manages to express his stories in a way that is easy to understand while also broadening our understanding of the things we think we know.  As a “writer,” it is something for me to aspire to.

You can read more from Brian Phillips at Grantland.com (well, not any more) and Run of Play.

Notes:

  1. ESPN announced it was shutting down Grantland on October 30, 2015.
  2. Morris now writes for the New York Times.

3 Comments

  1. Doug McKee February 16, 2016 Reply

    Mega dittos Max–Brian Phillips was must-read on Grantland and I don’t even like tennis!

  2. David June 26, 2016 Reply

    Totally agree, he’s really something else. I love his description of Loius van Gaal, a former football coach.

    “He’s a self-appointed genius who turned out to be an actual genius, a fragile megalomaniac, an emotional extremist tormented by the world’s failure to act as a projection of himself.”

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