Grantland

There is only one problem with Bill Simmons’s new website, Grantland: it’s not clear why it exists.  Three of the site’s regular writers are required reading regardless of subject: Simmons, Klosterman, and Tom Bissell, Grantland’s video game reviewer (though his work elsewhere ranges widely) and the best pure talent of the three.  The rest, including such non-luminaries as Jane Leavy, Wright Thompson, Michael Weinreb, and Chris Jones, seem miscast in this format.  They may be suited to writing about more traditional subjects for established journalism venues, but they do not benefit from the kind of stylistic freedom and high word counts the site grants its contributors: freedom, for a writer, can be double-edged.

For whatever reason, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in feeling this way, online writing must hook the reader from first or second sentence; the threshold for boring writing is lower on the internet than, say, when reading a book or magazine.  This is why I haven’t sent this site out to all my friends and family.  I don’t fear criticism, only a lack of interest.  What makes the majority of Grantland copy so far unreadable past the first or second sentence?  One answer, paradoxically enough, may be rooted in Simmons’s popularity.  Reading his mailbag columns over the years, what comes through is that his readers write like him: they write conversationally, they employ pop culture references to make a point, and they strive for irony and humor.  (Simmons, it is now common to say, revolutionized sportswriting; even Deadspin, a space of sporadic Simmons criticism, would not exist, or at least not in its current form, without his precedent.)  This trend, of readers mimicking the style of a favorite writer, has always meant that Simmons’s mailbag columns display one way the internet changes how we read, think, and write.  The regularly invoked democratization of viewpoints and styles the web inaugurated may be, on the evidence of the mailbags, in need of some nuance: what is notable about Simmons’s readers is not their heterogeneity, or a plurality of styles and interests, but their homogeneity (though Simmons may of course select and respond to, subconsciously or not, reader emails that reflect his own sensibility).

This is not to deride Simmons’s correspondents or the effect of the internet on writing in general.  On the contrary–the mailbag columns show that people across the internet possess an incisive irony surpassing that of professional sportswriters (a fraternity uncomfortable with irony to begin with).  Simmons has created for his readers (this one included) a very funny and supple idiom for debating sports and pop culture.  It is one thing for readers to write like Simmons, though.  It is another when those irony-resistant professional sportswriters attempt to write like Simmons–because, unsurprisingly, they can’t.

A larger, less comprehensible flaw of Grantland’s is that a number of its contributors seem to possess no obvious writing talent to begin with.   Here is Chris Jones, on his revived interest in baseball after a period away from the game:

I lasted 1½ seasons on the beat, and despite Jose Canseco’s sage advice, the nerves never left me. What did leave me, though, was the last of my love. Covering baseball was like seeing how your favorite sneakers are made: The process took all of the pleasure out of it.

And later:

Now, 10 years later, I’m back in that seat, on behalf of another new journalism venture, Grantland. I’ve wanted to write about baseball again for a few years now, but the desire became especially strong one sunny weekend this spring, when I went with some friends to a few Grapefruit League games and realized that my love had, in fact, never left me. I had just somehow stopped it up like a potion after all.

What is trying to get said in the first passage?  How, exactly, is covering baseball like seeing how your favorite sneakers are made?  Does Jones intend the apparent gesture to Nike’s third-world sweatshops?  The second passage is equally mystifying, but more because it leads one to ask why Simmons signed an eighth grader named Chris Jones to write for Grantland, and less for its lack of clarity (though don’t overlook the potion metaphor–as a metaphor for love).

Other writers are not as dispiriting as Jones, and Simmons, it should be said, is not simply winging it as Grantland’s editor in chief: a strong influence on the content and atmosphere of the site, not to mention on Simmons himself, is the long defunct magazine The National, to which he often pays homage and about which I know absolutely nothing aside from that it folded well before the internet began to threaten the revenues of print journalism.  But the question remains: why create what is essentially a web magazine if you have not identified a cadre of excellent writers to fill the infinite internet pages at your disposal?  Yes, now largely though not entirely free of ESPN oversight, Simmons and his writers can curse and assign their tangential witticisms to footnotes.  But I’ll read Simmons and Klosterman and Bissell wherever they publish, and they are not–and not coincidentally–lacking for opportunities.

To be fair, Simmons did answer the question Why Grantland? in his introductory column for the site, which may be, for its concision, its clarity, and its evocation of the simultaneously invigorating and daunting uncertainty inherent in any new venture, among the best things he’s ever written (Simmons, past forty, is still improving as a writer):

We had four goals for this site. The first was to find writers we liked and let them do their thing. The second was to find sponsors we liked and integrate them within the site — so readers didn’t have to pay for content, and also, so we didn’t have to gravitate toward quantity over quality just to chase page views. The third was to take advantage of a little extra creative leeway for the right reasons and not the wrong ones.  And the fourth was to hire the right blend of people — mostly young, mostly up-and-comers, all good people with good ideas who aren’t afraid to share them.

Simmons believes in his writers.  Or he makes a show of believing in them.  Or Grantland is an experiment.  Simmons thinks the site has a good chance of succeeding (even if it’s not clear what, in the context of an web magazine backed by the bottomless coffers of ESPN/ABC/Disney, will constitute success).  But the note of hesitancy he strikes elsewhere in this piece is a sincere one.  Simmons does not lack, and never will lack, for readers.  He’s a singular talent–the most readable writer of the internet age.  It is admirable that he doesn’t see himself in this light, and he might not have pushed for Grantland otherwise.  But his humbleness may stem in part from an inability to accurately judge writing, his own or that of others.  That he is intent on giving younger writers–who may remind him of his mid-twenties, struggling-to-get-publishing-and-noticed self–a chance to impress his large readership is commendable.  (Rick Reilly, after all, won’t be put out to his long overdue pasture anytime soon.)  The worry is that Simmons may be placing his faith in the wrong people.  So far that has been the case.

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