Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The HoG25: The 25 Best Writers of the Past 25 Years (Part II)

We're back again, and in case you're new to the House, this HoG25 thing we've been doing for the past few months has included NFL quarterbacks, American cinema, baseball hitters, readin' books, starting pitchers, television shows, and wide receivers.

And in case you missed the first chunk of this segment, you can find it here. Anyway, today's segment is the Top 10, but in this particular instance, it's not synonymous with the best 10.

Keep that in mind, and enjoy.

10: Andrew Sullivan

Old No. 7:
Gay. Catholic. Conservative. HIV-positive. These seemingly incongruous labels all describe Andrew Sullivan, a British citizen who blogs almost exclusively about American politics on his must-read Daily Dish.

That "conservative" portion of Sullivan's resume is pretty nebulous, as he supports many positions that have been associated with the far left such as gay marriage and climate change regulation. He also championed the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, preferring Obama's leadership style to the scattershot maverickiness of John McCain.

I often agree with Sullivan, yet nearly as often I'm at odds with the positions he takes. He generates a lot of heat for moving around on issues, but I see that as a sign of an open mind. I personally reevaluate my opinions on many topics all the time -- I once felt Josh McDaniels was a moron, now he's a genius. Trey Hillman, the exact opposite.

But the reason I read Sullivan is not his political slant, it's his mastery of crafting an argument in the English language. After a long career in magazines and books, Sullivan started the Dish back when no one knew what a blog was. He grinds out dozens of posts a day, and they are almost universally lucid and compelling. He gets the immediate-reaction facet of the medium, but he also has a reporter's eye for factuality and supporting data. And when he decides to break out with a long-form essay instead of a quick paragraph post, it's always worth your time.

By the way, of you're ever glancing at Sullivan's work on the Atlantic site, please take a few minutes to also check out Ta-Nehisi Coates. Simply one of the most talented up-and-coming writers around, just don't hold the fact that he's a Cowboys fan from Baltimore against him.

9: Sanyika Shakur

Sanyika Shakur, nee Kody Scott, aka Monster, was/is a member of the Eight-Trey Gangster Crips of South Central Los Angeles. He has, to the best of my knowledge, only written two books: one a work of fiction creatively titled T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E., the other his autobiography, Monster. I have no idea if his novel is worth the time it would take to read and have no desire to find out -- but he isn't on this list because of it. Nope, he's here because Monster, a book he wrote whilst incarcerated at lovely California penal institutions San Quentin and (shudder) Pelican Bay, is an absolute literary elbow to the throat.

It's not an easy read. He describes how, as a 6th grader, he dropped out of school to become a full-time gangbanger, how he nearly stomped a man to death as a 13 year-old. How he committed murder upon murder in the name of defending a few blocks of southern Los Angeles real estate from...well, from other kids like himself. The parts that take place in prison are enough to make any wannabe suburbanite criminal put on a tie and go straight to church. But through it all, his voice resonates. Largely self-taught, Shakur writes with force and confidence, even when his subject matter makes your skin crawl; his is a perspective that journalists simply cannot achieve.

Monster is powerful, illuminating and, ultimately, tragic--even his ultimate conversion to Islam and (supposed) renunciation of gang life weren't enough to change his fate. He's currently serving time under California's Three Strikes law, for robbing an acquaintance in 2007 after he was released from prison, and will probably never be a free man again. While he may not be a worthy human being, he remains a hell of a writer.

8: Russell Banks

I don’t really have much to say about Russell Banks aside from this: He may be the best working/living fiction writer in America. While he has published a ton of work, I’ll point to three works in our window. They are these: Continental Drift, Cloudsplitter, and The Darling. In our HoG books installment, I believe I said that Cormac McCarthy was, as far as fiction is concerned, the most important writer of the 20th century. It is impossible to compare the 21st, young as it is, with the one it succeeded. And it would be irrelevant to do so anyway. As far as fiction is concerned though, I put Banks high up there, close to McCarthy for what he’s doing literarily.

He has, in my opinion, the seldom-achieved ability to hit both the traditional fiction-reading market, and, for lack of better words, the wifey, book-club reading market. And that’s important. Mind you, it’s not important in terms of the market itself, the notion of being a successful publishing author, but it’s important because it means you’re doing really well at your trade.

The reason that Banks is, for now, able to achieve this is two-fold: On the one hand, he’s gifted. On the other hand, he has centered his strategy and philosophy on the notion of a stool. That’s right: a stool. The old-fashioned wobbly wooden kind. The kind that is a metaphor for his type of story. And that metaphor is this: Every good story is like an old wooden stool, standing firmly on three legs, telling, basically, one main story, and two back stories. It doesn’t matter which story you like the best. Chances are you’ll like the main story as it’ll get most of the novel’s pages. But these three stories, legs if you will, all come together at the seat, the platform, and they are bound by the most important, least visible element to any good story: theme.

I don’t include Russell in here because you’ve read him, or because you’ve heard of him, but because you will. He’s that good.

7: Bill James

Old No. 7:
I said all I needed to say about James when I nominated his book for a spot in the HoG25. I think he's just the frog's pajamas, obviously. What I still can't get my head around is the idea that some so-called baseball "purists" continue to hold out against advances in sabermetrics. You usually see this in fat middle-aged baseball writers, but occasionally an everyday fan will jump on a soapbox and attempt to beat up the disciples of Bill James.

My father-in-law is a retired school principal who now does consulting work in education. A huge part of his current gig is working with schools who use data collected from standardized tests and No Child Left Behind policies. He's always harping on administrators and teachers who insist on doing things the way they did 40 years ago, with no new methods, no accountability and no path to measurable improvement.

We watched a lot of baseball and drank a lot of beer this summer, and in the course of pursuing these fine hobbies he started a rant about how no one can execute a sacrifice bunt anymore. I pointed out that a sacrifice is almost always a bad play, that it's rarely advantageous to give away your most precious commodity (one of your 27 outs) for a marginal increase in your chance to score a run. He continued on, saying that this kind of thinking was killing baseball. That we worry too much about the stats and the percentages and exploiting matchups and that the random beauty of baseball is in danger of being lost.

I wholeheartedly disagreed, and I told him as much. No amount of number-crunching can replace the sights and smells of a ballpark. When I watch Albert Pujols swing a bat or Tim Lincecum deliver a pitch or Ichiro field his position, the last thing I'm thinking about is the probability of certain outcomes. I'm in awe of their abilities and of the perfection of the game itself. Statistical analysis brings me more understanding of and appreciation for the game, not less. Aside from the Devil's bargain we're forced to make in playing fantasy sports (occasionally rooting for a player who's facing your favorite team), Rotisserie baseball also heightens my fandom. And reading the work of James, Rob Neyer, Nate Silver, Jonah Keri, Tom Tango, Joe Posnanski and others brings me to an entirely different level of connection to the sport.

That's when I brought up my father-in-law's own work in education, how he's attempting to get school districts to move into the 21st century by using data to improve the performance of students. Actively opposing sabermetrics and openly dismissing those who attempt to research the game is the exact same thing as resisting education reform. It's also akin to holding on to creationism in the face of the evidence of evolution. Resisting civil rights because they disrupt "tradition." Ignoring advances such as cell phones, DVRs, vaccines, and Internet pornography because change is frightening.

I've had a further conversation with my father-in-law about the expansion of instant replay in baseball, which he tentatively supports. The technology is there, he says, to make the game better, why not use it? He's making my point for me, you see.

I love sabermetrics, yet I don't spend my evenings poring over spreadsheets and inventing new algorithms about baserunning efficiency. I let Bill James and his progeny do that work, and then I read it and enjoy baseball more.

6: Anthony Lane

Anthony Lane has been writing movie reviews for the New Yorker since '93, a job he shares with the easily dismissable David Denby (who is such a sap that he managed to be victimized by a Nigerian confidence scam; who wants to read a review by a guy who honestly believed that the Right Honorable David M. Ngidabala was really planning to wire him 150 million dollars once he found refuge in Switzerland?). Lane is anything but easily dismissable. Oh no. He's the critical equivalent of Bolo Leung.

You know Bolo Leung. He was the villain in Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon," not to mention about 50 B-level kung fu flicks, and played the indestructible badass Chong Li in "Bloodsport" alongside a pre-lame Jean-Claude Van Damme. Bolo Leung is an actor, but he is also a guy that, even at age 71, can rip your skull out from inside your face. I mean, I would rather run into any group of MS 13 members (link here) in a dark alley than have to hold a brief, friendly conversation with Bolo Leung. I may get stabbed in the one situation, but I would at least hopefully keep control of my bowels; whereas the very sight of Mr. Leung would cause my drawers to quickly fill with warm brown terror.

Anthony Lane brings that kind of heat. He's so good, so cutting, so funny and so effortlessly better than basically everyone else in the world who does his job (admittedly, I have a soft spot for Mr. Ebert) that reading him is almost intimidating. I can't make a multi-level pun that seamlessly weaves together Sunset Boulevard, Tom Waits and an orange Tastee-Freez, nor can I hold fire on my lede for five graphs without pissing off the reader, nor am I British. Anthony Lane, man, he's got it all.

5: Jay Glazer

This is my crapshoot of the round, my roll of the dice. I don’t intend to dazzle you with words or include a bullet-point list of things Jay Glazer has done as a writer. Conversely, I don’t even know what they are. My point in taking Glazer is this: change.

What does that mean? It means that, back in the hallowed halls of print journalism, when you and your father and his father awoke to the newspaper in the driveway for you news, and that was really the only way of getting it, being a beat writer had a different meaning. That is, if you scooped the story, and your story made the edition, your job as a reporter, and yes, a writer, was a successful one. You’re sitting here reading the House of Georges right now, which, I’m guessing, means that you don’t take the local paper. I do. I know Old No. 7 does, and Cecil at least used to.

Truth of the matter is that you don’t come to the House of Georges for scoops and breaking news. You come here for wise-crackery, perhaps to peep a photo, or on the rarest of circumstances, maybe to learn something. And I’m here, writing this specific entry to learn you this: Jay Glazer, is the man, when it comes to getting and delivering today’s scoop, regardless of the means in which he does it. Now, maybe a lot of the scoops he gets are delivered to the masses via his Twitter page. I mean, I’m sure that folks follow him on Twitter, get his tweets, and then go to his page on FOX, which, if you click to follow and see, is full of breaking news. Maybe you don’t like that page. Maybe you want it delivered quicker, swifter, and more concisely. You can go to his scoop page, if you please.

Whatever you do, do not turn into his television program, or watch clips of it on the InterWebs. It’s terrible.

That’s okay, though. We’re not here to criticize the man for being a goofy television figure. We’re actually not even here to examine his participles, and measure his literal cadence. We’re here to acknowledge the guy for one thing: access. He is, above and beyond, the leading sportswriter with access baggage in this country, and it is he, above all, that brings us the NFL news that we so ravenously desire.

Stupid pick? Maybe you think so. I disagree, and remind you, that a significant portion of the NFL news you’ve heard was made possible by the investigative writing and reporting of no one other than Jay Glazer himself.

4: Malcolm Gladwell

Old No. 7:
I have seriously struggled with this entry on Malcolm Gladwell. In fact, I've missed my deadline for submission by almost a week, and the Administrator is threatening to pull my tickets to the Broncos game at Arrowhead. Because I value nothing more than watching bad football with fat people, here it is.

My main hangup here is the widespread scorn faced by Gladwell the author. I have no doubt that much of this stems from his success -- many of the writers who go after Gladwell or his readers have published books themselves yet have sold far fewer copies. But is there something more substantive to this strain of thought, beyond mere jealousy? Am I, as someone who religiously reads Malcolm Gladwell, the victim of a hoax?

If you have the time, read this. It pretty much covers all the bases of Gladwell criticism but is thorough and fair instead of nasty. And, again if you have the time, read Gladwell. Most of his articles from The New Yorker are online, and his first couple books are available in paperback for a pittance.

Gladwell's writing makes me happy, and the more I examine this happiness I've realized that it's because it makes me feel smart. I have no idea if I am truly smarter having read what he's written, or if I've simply been duped by a master of manipulation. But at the end of the day, who cares? Good music is good music, and good food is good food, because it makes us happy.

3: John McPhee

There are plenty of inimitable practitioners of that inimitable practice known as Literary Journalism: Tom Wolfe, Paul Theroux and Gay Talese, for instance. Even early, pre-dissolution Hunter Thompson. Excellent craftsmen, all. But for my money -- which, admittedly, is made of wood and carved in the shape of a pendulous tit -- the best among 'em is John McPhee.

Now, I know the "within the last 25 years" conceit behind these here lists of ours unfortunately disqualifies some of his best work, particularly the sprawling and spectacular Coming Into the Country, a first-person account of the Alaskan frontier circa the mid-1970s that introduced America at large to Sarah Palin's political hero, Alaskan separatist Joe Vogler, who would a few years later die in what the New York Times described as a "plastic explosives sale gone bad." (You know, as opposed to all the ones that end with beers and backslaps.) It also forces me to expunge The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (experimental aeronautics), A Sense of Where You Are (basketball, Bill Bradley) and Oranges (oranges) from my case, here. But it's a measure of McPhee's greatness that, even leaving aside such efforts, he's still a lock for this list.

Try on Assembling California, for instance, one of his many books dealing with the practical and human impact of geology, or The Founding Fish, an historical look at the importance of shad to early Americans. Peruse "In Search of Marvin Gardens," originally published as a long-form piece for the New Yorker, a brilliant piece of writing that I'm simply not qualified to describe in anything other than the most basic terms: it's about both the game of Monopoly and the game's actual, physical representations in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

McPhee is not a showman like Thompson or a personality like Wolfe. He's not flashy, he doesn't become the story, his subjects are rarely the raw material of history. What he is, though, is the greatest living nonfiction writer in America.

2: Joe Posnanski

Most any angle I take writing about the writer that Joe Posnanski is will fail in some sense. So take what you are about to read with a grain of salt. Joe Posnanski is the best working writer in America. I’ve had the luxury of reading him for over a decade, and his work has educated me, inspired me, and humbled me on every occasion in which I have encountered it. Posnanski has been a large reason why I was drawn back into baseball. He’s refueled my tank on many needed occasions when my hope for success with the Kansas City Royals has coasted on less than fumes.

He has immersed himself with personalities like Priest Holmes, George Brett, and the late Buck O’Neill, and done so in a fashion that leaves me with but one word: perfect.

He has embraced, or so it would seem the technologies of the modern writing world, and taken to Tweeting and blogging. He has continued to write about the sports nature of his native city of Cleveland, while living in Kansas City, which I admire. He has covered the Olympics, graciously accepted a well-deserved position as a senior writer with Sports Illustrated, while vowing to still write occasionally for The Kansas City Star, which I also admire.

He has won countless awards for his craft, and through it all, he has remained, or so it would seem to an outsider, a heck of a human being, father, and husband. He, as a figure, is my lone duplicate from our books entry, and I have zero shame in admitting that. Posnanski has, for whatever morsel it might be worth, has existed as a modicum of aspiration in this sense:

When a young person says they want to be a doctor, a lawyer, an athlete, a cop, a teacher, what have you, the formula for achievement is tangible. It’s laid out, drawn up, and gridded like a map. When someone says, however, I want to be a writer, the next piece of conversation is either non-verbal, like a shrug, or silent, like a still prairie night. As if the listener doesn’t have the heart to say, “I’m sorry to hear you say that. Good luck.” Joe Posnanski and his career are the qualifier that eliminate awkwardness from that conversation, for the speaker can simply point to his body of work and say, “Like that.”

1: Michael Lewis

Old No. 7:
I get really bummed out every time I see the trailer for "The Blind Side." It's based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, but apparently the folks that made the movie decided to target it to my wife. Sure enough, when she saw the trailer she got a little teary-eyed and said she wanted to see it, because she loves Sandra Bullock movies where everyone speaks in cliches.

Problem is, The Blind Side is not really about Leigh Anne Tuohy, the real-life person played by Bullock. And it's not really even about Michael Oher, the first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, although he serves as the book's center of gravity. Fundamentally, The Blind Side is about the evolution of the left tackle position in football -- how the quarterback became the sport's most important player, which then made the guy who rushes the quarterback the next desired commodity, which then made the guy who protects the get the idea.

Lewis is at his best in breaking down complex subjects -- pass protection schemes, MLB scouting, software development, financial derivatives -- and allowing his readers to engage with the people that inhabit those worlds. I guess that's how Hollywood was able to build a movie around Leigh Anne Tuohy. Even though she was a secondary player in Lewis' book, she was fully developed and fed the underlying narrative.

One of these days Joe Morgan is going to accidentally read a Michael Lewis book or magazine article and thoroughly enjoy it. And all levels of ironicality will have to be recalibrated.

There you go, faithful readers. Another one down. If you must the first installment of this piece, find it here.