Friday, July 22, 2011

The Novelist as Sports Writer & Blues Writer: Colson Whitehead

One of my favorite novelists, Colson Whitehead, has, for the moment at least, transformed into a kind of sports writer. He's running a series of writings about his participation in the World Series of Poker over on Bill Simmons's Grantland sports site. Two of Whitehead's pieces, Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia: Part 1 and Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia: Part 2 have already appeared, and a third is on the way.

Grantland, affiliated with ESPN where Simmons became a leading columnist, is a sports site, in a way. But the plan for the site, it seems, is to highlight interests in sports and pop culture.

The site gained quite a bit of attention prior to its launch on June 8 because of its accomplished list of contributors and advisory editors, including, Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Katie Baker, Molly Lambert, Jay Caspian Kang, and Malcolm Gladwell. Tony Manfred, in an article about Grantland for Business Insider, noted that "Due to the résumés of the people involved and the ESPN marketing machine, the site will be used to define things like 'quality' in sportswriting." I became more intrigued with the site when I noticed Colson Whitehead was mentioned as one of the contributing writers.

I wondered what sport Whitehead might write about on the site. Then, I came across notices saying that he would participate in the big-time Poker tournament and write about it for Grantland.

Whitehead has demonstrated in his novels that he's well-suited for writing about pop culture in ways that an audience for Grantland might find appealing. Actually, in his pre-novel days, Whitehead was writing about television and culture in general for the Village Voice where he began his career as a professional writer.

In recent years, Whitehead has written some comical pieces in the New York Times -- "The Year of Living Postracially" and "Finally, A Thin President"-- and in April, he wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly about "The Blessed Distraction Of Technology," which created quite a bit of buzz on twitter.

In the two pieces on the Poker tournament so far, Whitehead has described the lead-up to his participation and his training sessions. He describes sparring partners, such as Big Mitch, Methy Mike, Robotron and "the lady with the crimson hair;" a physical trainer to help him with dietary concerns; and his poker sensei, the novelist Helen Ellis. Whitehead's writing about the extensive steps to prepare for the tournament is comical and at the same time useful material for anyone trying to convince their friends about the ways that Poker can be viewed as or like "a real sport."

In addition to being filled with humor, there's also something sad, or let's say, bluesy about the writing. For one, Whitehead opens the first essay in the series by noting that "I have a good poker face because I am half-dead inside." Ouch.

Throughout the series he mentions his "degradations" and his status as a perpetual loser. He in fact closely identifies with, he notes in the second essay, the contestants on the competitive weight-loss reality shows. "My failures possessed a weight," wrote Whitehead. "I carried them around, and before poker I sought the proper instrument of their measure," which he found by observing these "reality TV pilgrims."

There are even lower moments. At one point, he mentions  that he left town for a training session without letting anyone know where he had gone. "Here I was acting as if I had nobody," he writes. He then adds, referencing his recent divorce with his wife, that "One of the overlooked benefits of joint custody is that you're going to go max 36 hours until someone discovers your decomposing body." 

Whitehead's continuous self-directed insults, his discussions of repeated failures and loses, and his references to death merge with the humor of his writing and his willingness to share down and out tales and yet keep moving connect his narratives to this wonderful tradition known as the blues.

That's me projecting of course. A hip, contemporary New York City writer like Whitehead might not prefer to categorize his work as "blues writing" in this day and age. There are all kinds of limits to that kind of labeling, I suppose. On the other hand, it's difficult not to hear some of the conventions and convictions of the blues or blues-inflected traditions running throughout his writings here.  
Nearly 10 years ago when Whitehead published his first novel The Intuitionist, his work was linked favorably with Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man. At that point, the comparisons seemed to link the two novelists along the lines of their apparent high-level stylistic approaches. But now, we see another connection between the two novelist-essayists somewhere near the gut bucket sensibilities of the blues--a topic on which Ellison wrote really superb pieces.  

We don't even have to go back to Ellison though. The hard-luck figure who emerges in those Whitehead poker pieces also appears in works by his good friend Kevin Young, a poet who frequently writes blues poems.

The speaker in Young's poem "Black Cat Blues" opens noting that "I showed up for jury duty— / turns out the one on trial was me," and to make matters worse, the "Judge that showed up / was my ex-wife." The speaker in his poem "Dirty Deal Blues," closes by observing that "My closest kin named / No One. / And him long gone." 

Young's poems and Whitehead's writing in the series display humor and hurt. And they do so in powerful and intriguing ways. Consider the following passage where Whitehead makes a case for an alternative narrative tradition that takes into account a "broken" and "unqualified" figure like him:
In one of the fiction-writing manuals, it says that there are only two stories: a hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. I don't know. This being life, and not literature, we'll have to make do with this: A middle aged man, already bowing and half-broken under his psychic burdens, decides to take on the stress of being one of the most unqualified players in the history of the Big Game. A hapless loser goes on a journey, a strange man comes to gamble.

Whitehead's writing is somewhat funny yet also pained, don't you think? Anhedonia, noted in the title of Whitehead's pieces by the way, refers to "is defined as the inability to experience pleasure from activities formerly found enjoyable."


I've always wondered how Whitehead has managed to build a wider audience than say many of his peer African American novelists. Or, really more broadly, I've wondered what factors determine that some black writers become more popular and critically acclaimed than others. I suppose Whitehead's appearance on Grantland is one answer.

The appearance of his work on that site certainly introduces him to an audience that may not have been aware of his work otherwise. I'm thinking that publishing work in different venues for diverse audiences could likely increase a writer's cultural capital. For writers, it's likely that shifts in venue and audience could also expand their capabilities and approaches.

We're told that the "next episode" in the Whitehead poker series involves "White 63, Seat 9. Down the Amazon. The M-theory of Life."

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