Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: The Art of Fielding

             As the Best Books of the Year lists started to surface on the web, the title I saw most frequently was The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  Apparently those who are wired into the literary circles of the northeast knew this writer and had been expecting this debut novel from the Harvard grad for some time.   After reading the book’s description on Amazon, I knew I would have to read this book.  The story follows Henry, a young undersized but incredibly slick-fielding shortstop, as he lands a spot on the roster of a small Midwestern Division III college baseball team.  He fields a baseball like Mozart played the piano, but his brilliance is only realized after careful observation because is he so small and scrawny.   
            This sounded familiar. . .           
            For those who  don’t know me, I was a 105 lbs shortstop when I entered high school, and 140 lbs dripping wet when I was fortunate enough to find a college in Middle Tennessee State that would give me a partial scholarship to play ball.   In Fielding, Henry packs on some muscle and becomes a better hitter once at college, enabling him to attract the attention of pro scouts just like yours truly.  Why am I not suing Harbach for writing my tale?  Well, for one, my roommate and fellow teammate was not gay (unless Snyder is a great actor and his current wife and kids are an elaborate sham) like that of Henry’s roomie in Harbach’s book. 
Also Henry is a bit na├»ve and dim, almost oblivious to his skills.  He just knows he loves to play and he does it brilliantly without ever thinking.  This fact becomes an important plot point later.   The upperclassman named Schwartz, who recognizes Henry’s skill and recruits him to Westish college,  becomes the hero of the book.  This hard working, hard living brute is brilliantly portrayed as are most of the ball players in Fielding.  The scenes involving baseball and the off-season weight training are spot on.   There are plenty of laughs and there is plenty of heart throughout.  A good portion of the story leaves baseball in the periphery and becomes more familiar to readers of scholarly fiction that often thumbs its nose at books by the Connellys and Cornwells.
The writer in me was a little bitter as I started reading.  I have written a baseball book that I thought transcended the sport.  I am a much better writer now than when I wrote The Ball Player, but I still feel it is good work.  If Chad Harbach could get a $650,000 advance, as was reported, for The Art of Fielding than surely The Ball Player should have fetched me at least 20K, right?  Wrong. 
So it took a little doing to shrug aside the salty snarl that kept my lips curled through chapter one and two.  But once I forced myself to view Harbach as a kindred spirit, I began to enjoy his masterpiece.  I call it that because it is - a work done with extraordinary skill; a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement (Merriam-Webster’s).  This novel is not for the all-American baseball fan.  If pitched this book, a Hollywood producer might hear, “It’s Bull Durham meets Brokeback Mountain.”   This comparison might seem glib, but it should ward off readers with peculiar sensibilities.
Read The Art of Fielding.  Just don’t expect to loan it from your Kindle or Nook.  The publisher felt it was so impressive that to have it bounce around the world electronically might tarnish it, or at least its ability to earn back the advance.  And if you have read Fielding, next read The Ball Player. Available now at claysnellgrove.com. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Look Back on Novel #1

My first foray into writing novel length fiction was more than a decade ago.  In terms of my knowledge of the craft at the time, I was young, dumb, and wildly naive.  I approached the challenge of writing that first novel like a successful middle aged businessman taking up the challenge of running a first marathon.  This newbie runner just buys a pair of running shoes and asks, how many miles must I jog each week to finish 26.2 on race day?  I took half my signing bonus I received from the San Diego Padres, bought a $500 Toshiba laptop, and asked, how many words must I type to fill 300 pages in a mass market paperback?

I had heard some whispers about how difficult it was to compose a novel.  The movies were full of would-be writers struggling into their 30s and 40s to finish their future best-sellers.   English grad students all had a Chapter One saved and tucked away just waiting for that long summer in front of the keyboard when chapters 2-99 would materialize.    I knew many had come before and failed, but that fact alone made the task that much more enticing.  My hubris surely heightened at the time by my envied profession of pro athlete (‘poor’ purposely removed from this title to fuel popular misperception), and by the testosterone that my regular workouts had pumping through my veins.

Three months after I began my first novel, it was complete.  I had saved in My Documents a 100,000-word thriller about a college kid turned vigilante that just needed to be spell-checked.   I bought a book soon after that explained the process of querying literary agents and how to seek their representation (this was 1999 and everything was not yet online).   Eight of the twelve agents I sent my synopsis to actually wanted to see the first few chapters!  At the time I had no idea how rare this was.  A decade later I would send 50 queries out for The Ball Player and only have 3 agents ask to read a sample.

If you are not a writer, I will now break the bad the news… A spell-checked rough draft from a young scribe with little experience writing or reading the kind of novel he is attempting to complete is bound to be fraught with literary missteps.   The sample chapters I sent were quickly rejected, as well they should have been, after what I assume was a quick scan of the novel’s first few paragraphs.  

I actually believed I was sending out good work all those years ago.  I have written several more novels since, and hope to finish another very soon.  I will be contacting agents and publishers with this new work, feeling as confident now as I did back then.  The realization that, my work, while better, is still not worthy of a distinguished agent or publisher’s representation but I’m blind to that fact, can be a bit scary.  All I can really do is get better and keep writing.  And…

I can do that.