Writing long [form] is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to … offer a summary, a commentary.
I enjoy a good read. I even enjoy a good, long read. More often than not though, I enjoy that good, long read in theory more than in practice. I’ve grown accustomed to a certain amount of efficiency in the content I consume. There are times when reading a 2,500 word piece comparing a certain sports event to a corresponding piece of popular culture simply isn’t practical, no matter how appealing the byline might read. It’s these stories that end up in internet purgatory, a tab in my browser that doesn’t get read.
And so, for the sake of all those like me, I thought I’d spend some time each week and read through the pieces that would normally be the wallflower equivalents of internet narrative journalism. Below you’ll find summaries of the best long-form pieces that made the rounds this week.
Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax [Deadspin]
The Gist: Everything you ever believed to be true is false. The story of Manti Te’o's girlfriend dying and inspiring him to become one of the better defensive players in college football – something that millions were told about in newspaper reports and television features on the Notre Dame linebacker – were all made up. While Te’o and the university claim that the player was the victim of a catfish hoax, circumstantial evidence suggests that Te’o could have been in on the scam.
There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te’o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te’o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te’o every night on the telephone. She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia. She never had a bone marrow transplant. She was not released from the hospital on Sept. 10, nor did Brian Te’o congratulate her for this over the telephone. She did not insist that Manti Te’o play in the Michigan State or Michigan games, and did not request he send white flowers to her funeral. Her favorite color was not white. Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te’o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest.
Readability: Immense. I mean, it’s immensely readable if you’re into the whole “talking about what every single other sports fan in North America is talking about” thing. If people hate the idea of being deceived, they absolutely love the possibility of discovering that deception and condemning those who perpetrated it. The work of Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey revealed a massive lie that had been told to sports fans, and in doing so, allowed us to play detectives searching for those behind the falsehoods. The story is an investigative report turned into an interactive mystery.
Training Pampered Motherfuckers [SB Nation]
Byline: “You can still make a lot of money letting guys punch you around. What else does a guy fight for? But it always seemed it was for more than money. That’s why you affected people so.” — Jimmy Cannon from “You’re Joe Louis.”
The Gist: Eric Kelly is one of those characters you imagine to exist only in fiction. He took a ruined boxing career – due to an eye injury sustained in a bar fight – and transformed it into a lucrative career as a trainer. However, instead of training actual boxers, Kelly opened his gym to the wealthy – the extremely wealthy. His gimmick, or what he would call his brand, is that he curses and berates his mostly Wall Street clientele with constant and clever barbs. He takes no nonsense to a new level. The scary part is that the members of the gym love the abuse.
To understand the substance of Eric Kelly’s appeal to the “born on third base motherfuckers from Pleasantville,” as he calls his Wall Street clients, perhaps the obvious starting point is the personal: Kelly is a love-him-or-hate-him Dickens’ character with a gift of profane gab that Aaron Sorkin and David Simon would kill to take credit for. He elevates roasting his clients into an art form: He mocks everyone yet seems to offend nobody. Forget Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle doing their best paint-by-number of Richard Pryor’s pathos—there’s little artifice in Kelly’s routine.
Readability: In the early part of this piece there’s a back-and-forth relayed between the author and a member of the gym who tries to express the appeal of verbal abuse. The stock broker wonders if it’s part of missing the Occupy movement, and the writer, Brin-Jonathan Butler, in that assholish way that writers are, immediately questions him if that’s because of his guilt over the bailout and the generally reckless behaviour of brokers that led up to it. While it’s admirable that the writer didn’t force this narrative into his piece, it would’ve been better to have a focus like this driving a long-form read that felt too multi-directional for its own good. Part personal essay, part boxing nostalgia, part social criticism, part biography; it lacked something to make it whole. Not helping matters was the feeling that the author’s favorite character from the piece was himself.
The Long Saunter, or I Was A Champion Youth Racewalker [The Classical]
Byline: When I was ten years old, I was a competitive racewalker. It’s a weird sport, but I was a weird kid.
The Gist: David Goldenberg competed at the highest level of childhood race-walking. This doesn’t really affect him all that much today other than providing a healthy supply of anecdotes from his sporting youth.
By the time I turned five, our family took to running 10K road races on the weekends, and my brother and I would take the top prizes in our age group, occasionally by default. But I struggled with exercise-induced asthma at times. My mother would slow down for me, while my brother—only two years older and blessed with twitch-free airways—kept up with my father, usually beating most of the adults in any given race. When I was seven and he was nine, my parents signed us up for the Magic City Track Club, a summer running group that practiced several mornings a week at a nearby high school. The club introduced us to the AAU circuit, and we became regulars at the local meets. In 1988, my brother advanced through the regional events and qualified for the Junior Olympics. I stayed behind at a friend’s house.
I was not pleased to be left out while the rest of my family was, I could only assume, whooping it up in Wichita. (Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Kansas at the time.) A call came: my brother had come in seventh nationally in the 1500-meter run, running the equivalent of a six-minute mile at just 10 years old. Then the next day an even more jubilant call: Matt won the bronze medal in the 3000-meter race. I was annoyed, in the way that an eight-year-old would be but also in a way I still understand. I wanted some glory for myself. That’s how I came to racewalking.
Readability: There’s a time and a place for this article. It’s likely on Sunday afternoon, with a glass of wine in your hand. It’s almost dusk, and the dread of going back to work or school on Monday morning is starting to set. This will stave that feeling off for a little bit. It’s that kind of piece: whimsical and purposeless, but not annoyingly so. It doesn’t attempt anything grand. It’s essentially an extended anecdote with a few more details than you might learn at a dinner party from a stranger with an interesting tale.
Director’s Cut: ‘Down Great Purple Valleys,’ by John Lardner [Grantland]
Byline: A look at the bombastic and abbreviated life of Stanley Ketchel, from one of America’s greatest sportswriters.
The Gist: John Lardner was a writer’s writer, the type that all the other sportswriters recognized as superior, even if the public didn’t. His greatest piece was entitled Down Great Purprle Valleys, about a boxer named Stanley Ketchel. This piece is bookended by Michael MacCambridge’s mini-biography of Lardner.
The opening sentence from Lardner’s piece on Ketchel:
Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.
From the biographical bookends:
In the ’50s, spectator sports were still viewed as something of a sideshow to mainstream American life, and the sports sections of American newspapers were often dismissed as “the toy department” by haughty news editors. Perhaps because of this, Lardner’s story was mostly lost in the deluge of American magazine journalism from the decade. But today, “Down Great Purple Valleys” is recognized among the best of Lardner’s work. “I have no idea why he chose to write about Stanley Ketchel or how and where he did the research,” Susan Lardner says. “This piece has lately become a favorite among other writers, and I only hope people move on to read the many other wonderful pieces he wrote, short and long.”
Readability: The Grantland Director’s Cut series is probably my favorite part of the website. It looks back at a classic work of sports journalism and allows a knowledgable writer to reflect on the work. Past entries have been excellent in both theory and practice. The most recent is no exception, and perhaps the best to date of the series.
The bookends are well articulated and constructed in a fashion that let’s the reader feel the notion of what’s being expressed rather than being pummelled by it with dripping sentimentality. Yeah, it’s romantic, and it’s nostalgic, but it’s not schmaltzy in the least. As for the Lardner piece that’s printed in its entirety, the opening sentence makes you despise all other writers for wasting your time with their incapabilities. And then the article gets even better. In my favorite section, Lardner describes one of the players in a scene he sets as “a part-time playwright … and a full-time deadbeat.” It’s the type of brilliance that’s so pleasing to read it, you’ll find yourself smiling unknowingly from the joy it provides.
The Last Cockfighter Tells All [SB Nation]
Byline: A man I will call Clyde won his first four-cock derby on a cool spring Saturday at a place called The Milk Dairy in Tickfaw down in Tangipahoa Parish., La. Then he drove back home to Mississippi. He unloaded “830,” “Red Wire,” “836” and “Mr. Big Stuff” from the back of his Dodge and put them in their pens. A fifth bird, “The Experiment,” had traveled to the derby but true to his name he did not make it back. These things happen.
The Gist: Cockfighting is a real thing that happens in the United States of America in the 21st Century. Yeah, it’s brutal and cruel and inhumane to treat animals that way, but oh man, check out these crazy characters who run the pits and fight their birds.
Cockfighting is an ancient sport. But its intricacies are hard to know. Men learn them not from books but from hanging around pits, mostly listening and then watching who they talk to. It began in Asia. The Greeks wrote about respecting the will of gamecocks. In America there is a story cockfighters tell: “Honest” Abe Lincoln’s nickname came not from a courtroom but a rooster pit, where as a referee he earned a reputation for fairness. And no matter if it is true. In the south, where cockfighting held strong for generations, cockers take it as fact. They carry the history along.
Readability: A lack of judgment typically refers to someone making a mistake. In the journalism of yesterday, when all of the writers used to pretend that they didn’t have biases, not judging the subjects of a story would be celebrated. However, smart people began to realize that we’re all so incredibly biased anyway, it’s far better to make your audience aware of your perspective from the beginning, and then write honestly without trying to pretend as though you’re being neutral about it.
Beyond the disturbing lack of judgment in William Browning’s account of an era that we’d presumably prefer to be more bygone than it is, there is a romanticizing of the individuals making money by hurting animals that leaves the reader wanting to wash out their eyes and start hugging random domesticated animals. New Wave director Francois Truffaut famously said that there is no such thing as an anti-war film. The spectacle of violence in the cinema is enthralling. Film is an especially brutal media in its inadvertent celebration of heinous actions. In a similar vein, by telling the story of cockfighting through an individual who comes across as charming, a despicable act – his despicable act – is not only glossed over, it’s celebrated as being a part of a past tradition.