Here's the first of a series of sports book reviews that deal with specific issues related to the craft of sports reporting and writing. I plan to use several chapters of this book for my sports reporting course in the fall.
A few years ago, I used the word “gam” to describe the attractive legs of a female athlete, not so much that I was leering but to reveal that this young woman turned more than a few heads on campus. The people in my workshop loved the use of the word even though it seemed as though the old-fashioned reference seemed more likely to come out of the mouth of a film-noire detective than from a 1990s journalist.
I had been uncomfortable using this description. In fact, I am often uneasy describing women in my writing, especially if they are young and attractive like some of the players on Eastern Illinois’s rugby team. I’m forty-three and they are half that age, at best. I do not want to appear like perverted old Humbert Humbert in Nabkhov’s novel, lusting after a pre-pubescent Lolita. But, as a writer, I do need to find a way to describe these young women so the reader can see them. So what’s a middle-aged family guy to do?
I guess I could describe these young women analogously, comparing them to a vintage car: “As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.” That’s the type of prose, though, that is written poorly on purpose, for competitions like the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, as this writer, Dan McKay did.
Detective novelists, from Dashiell Hammet to Robert Parker, seem to do a great job of describing women. In the opening of the Maltese Falcon, Hammet describes a women seeking help from detective Sam Spade.
“She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face. She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said: ‘There's a girl wants to see you. Her name's Wonderly.’
‘I guess so. You'll want to see her anyway: she's a knockout.’
‘Shoo her in, darling,’ said Spade. ‘Shoo her in.’
Effie Perine opened the door again, following it back into the outer office, standing with a hand on the knob while saying: ‘Will you come in, Miss Wonderly?’
A voice said, ‘Thank you,’ so softly that only the purest articulation made the words intelligible, and a young woman came through the doorway. She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing.
She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made” (Hammet).
Robert Parker’s protagonist clearly appreciates the woman described in the opening pages of Hugger Mugger. Spencer, a private detective, focuses on physical features and clothing before offering a subtle commentary:
“Penny sat straight in her chair, her hands folded in her lap, her knees together, her ankles together, her feet firmly on the floor. She was wearing white gloves and a set of pearls, and a dark blue dress that didn’t cover her knees. I was glad it didn’t” (Parker 3).
Parker can hide behind a person in his detective novels. These descriptions do not necessarily reflect the author’s obsessions; plus, these descriptions help define the protagonist. In Creative Non-Fiction, descriptions typically reflect the mind of the author. So I could not write about the young women in my book in this manner; however, there is nothing wrong in stating that someone is attractive without appearing licentious or dirty. That has been one of the more challenging aspects of writing about the young women playing rugby – describing them accurately and fully without being lecherous.
For this reason, I was intrigued by the Red Rose Crew, a book that chronicles the challenges of the first female rowing squad to compete in international competition. They faced some of the same challenges – sexual prejudice, bureaucracy and male domination – that the young women at Eastern Illinois face. At first, I wanted to learn how Daniel Boyne structured his book – how he introduced so many characters and how he introduced and described a sport that is obscure. Pretty soon, I became more interested in the manner in which this male writer, Daniel Boyne, described the young women in his book.
There is a slight difference between our two stories. Boyne is writing about women who were twenty years older by the time he wrote his book; mine addresses women who are currently eighteen to twenty-three. Boyne introduced and described the women by employing three narrative perspectives. We learn about the characters from an omniscient narrator, from a limited omniscient narrator who reveals the characters’ thoughts, and from a more objective narrator who reports what the women say about one another.
Characters are typically created and revealed through action, dialogue, interior monologue and physical description. The action need to be densely informative, writes Jerome Stern in Making Shapely Fiction (98). A character’s words should propel the story and create a real person for the reader. Going into a character’s mind is the most intimate way of defining character; this method enables the writer to reveal her ideas, memories, fears and hopes. Physical description gives characters what stern calls corporeal life: “Flesh has heft, takes up space, feels through its skin. A fat thigh or a bony arm makes a person more vivid than height and eye color” (Stern 99).
Boyne employs all of these methods well in The Red Rose Crew. We learn about the character through their thoughts and through the words they choose. For example, Chris Ernst, a sharp Yale rower, likes to say she does not have a “pot to piss in” (Boyne 91). Dialogue between sixteen-year-old coxswain Lynn Silliman and the team’s distinguished coach, Harry Parker, reveals a fearless confident girl. When the coach yells at the youngest member of the team in his deep, resonant voice, Lynn responds just as strongly:
“’Lynn, keep on course.’Actions also defines characters. Carie Graves, the most rebellious and strong-willed individuals, is shown leg-wrestling with her boyfriend’s close friend. The young women are also shown through their efforts in rowing competitions.
Lynn shouts back: ‘I am on course.’
‘I’m sorry, Lynn, but you’re not…’
‘Yes, I am!’
Parker hesitated. Yes, this one would do” (Boyne 104-105).
Characters are frequently described through the minds of other characters in this book. Maggie McLean, who did not make the team, was the type of rower that Carie hated – a rower that could not handle the hardships of rowing well (Boyne 111). Tough-minded rower Chris Ernst, who fought tenaciously for a spot on the team, did not look impressive, something assistant coach Nat Case thought when he first met her. The reader sees how Case treats her at first, putting her in the secondary boat and testing her twice as often as the other rowers (Boyne 97-98).
Physical descriptions are easy. Boyne states heights, weights, hair color and clothing choices throughout the book. Subjective descriptions can be more challenging, especially for writers trained as objective journalists and want to be fair. These descriptions can get in trouble. For example, at what point is a person “tall and lean,” as rower Claudia Schneider is described. Who says when a person is lean? And how is Gail Pierson’s smile “winsome.” Will others see Gail’s smile as charming or naïve? That is part of the struggle. A writer needs to be confident enough to make these assessments because these are the descriptions that can get writers in trouble. When we start writing that characters are “overweight,” (Boyne 12) or “baby-faced” (Boyne 102), we had better be certain.
When we start to comment on sex appeal, we had better be even more careful. Calling a young woman like Carie Graves “attractive,” as Boyne does, can cause more challenges. Who says? Is this writer sexually attracted to this person? Or is this just an observation?
Obviously, a writer needs to have a strong reason to add comments like this, especially when the characters themselves feel insecure about their looks. Like most young women, Carie Graves was one of these women who lacked self-confidence. For example, Carie, who is six feet one, does not like to stand up on a bus after meeting a guy on a bus where she had been sitting, afraid this would scare him away. Even an older woman like Gail Pierson was careful when she spoke with reporters. “You had to be guarded with reporters as a female athlete, too, and not come off sounding too strong or to masculine. They were threatened if you did that, and immediately labeled you as something less than a real woman” (17).
As writers, we have just as many insecurities. We are measuring our descriptions against how they will be perceived just as the people we describe are worried about the image they are projecting. There is no easy way to describe people. However, writers do owe readers the most accurate descriptions possible, which means making assessments that are precise and revealing. That also means writers need to take the time to really get to know a person before describing, or judging, her. That’s no easy task, but one that is worth the time and consideration for all involved – the people characterized, the reader, and the writer.
■ Boyne, Daniel J. The Red Rose Crew: A True Story of Women, Winning and the Water. Guilford, Conn.: The Lyons Press, 2000.
■ Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Knopf, 1957
■ Parker, Robert B. Hugger Mugger. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000.
■Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991.