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John Bale. Anti-Sport Sentiments in Literature: Batting for the Opposition.

John Bale. Anti-Sport Sentiments in Literature: Batting for the Opposition. London: Routledge, 2008. 202 pp.

It is a commonplace observation that what makes for great sports is balanced opponents, the yin-yang of the evenly matched bodes well for sports itself as such antagonism brings out the best in each. Such rivalries are the stuff of important sports. Of course, here within this precious and often narrow comer of academia we who so dote on sports novels and sports literature are always playing in front of a home crowd--earning with very little effort enthusiastic kudos from audiences already convinced of the significance of sports and athleticism as meaningful. John Bale, Professor of Sports Studies at Keele University (England), reminds us here of the considerable body of literature--largely unexcavated--that takes issue with the assumption that sports and athleticism are heroic, measures of the human spirit, tests of virtues that are noble and empowering. That pro-sport bias has shaped a generation of sports literature criticism and has left unexplored that body of fiction that uses sports as metaphors for exploitation, narcissism, political and economic oppression, retarded mental development, and frivolous distractions. After all, as Bale reminds us, writers are not generally part of the jock-ocracy and that disaffection with something as pervasive and as ingrained in the mass culture that so often dismisses writers to the margins is not altogether surprisingly.

Bale's six selections for his analyses are by his own admission personal and idiosyncratic--all male, mostly British (Philip Roth is the only exception), mostly fiction writers (he includes two poets, most notably poet laureate John Betjeman), all white. They represent for Bale the first salvo in what he sees as a necessary balancing act long overdue in sports fiction analysis--taking a hard look at those writers of serious fiction who treat sports with considerable attention and yet do not adhere to traditional lines of defense of gamesplaying and athleticism. Of the six, four ate marginal curiosities to larger audiences of literary analysis, minority enthusiasms who receive attention that they seldom receive elsewhere: a World War One poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, a minor Edwardian novelist Jerome K. Jerome known largely for his travelogues, the Angry Young Man Alan Sillitoe, and Betjeman. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is devoted to Lewis Carroll whose experimental works of fantasy inevitably drew up a fascinating contest in his best-known fiction between his well-documented athleticism and his escape-into a wonderworld conceived entirely by the mind. The Roth chapter centers largely on Goodbye, Columbus and The Great American Novel as satires of sports and particularly sports fanaticism. The work with the novella is far more successful as it remains one of Roth's most read works and yet one that receives scant critical attention as it came so early in what has become a landmark literary career.

It is perhaps less the individual analyses that merit taking note of this study--it is more valuable for its strident assertion of the need to include within the canon of sports literature and within any discussion of sports literature what Bale argues is a considerable body of anti-sport writing, books he argues whose sports interests may not be evident, whose critique of the sports mentality and the body culture it engenders may require careful reading of works of serious fiction that may not actually take place on fields of in gyms. The problem here of course is that sweeping assertions are left at that--we are given close (at times too close) readings of largely forgettable writers (save Sillitoe whose slender novella has been mined to exhaustion). So it is as a premise that Bale's work finds merit.

Ed Rieferbrick

Solon (MD) College
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Author:Rieferbrick, Ed
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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