Thursday, March 8, 2007

Some great lessons


Here's the third of a series of reviews on sports books that focus on issues related to the craft of sports reporting and writing. This review is of Mark Frost’s THE GREATEST GAME EVER TOLD.

Frost used considerable source material, such as newspapers articles, books, memoirs, archived notes and conversations to write his book about the 1913 U.S. Open golf championship. The Greatest Game Ever Played is based upon historical documents, such as newspaper articles, journals and recorded conversations.

Some of Frost’s reporting goes against traditional journalistic methods. But this can lead to discussions about New Journalism (which is actually middle-aged), about reporting techniques, and about the challenge to report the truth.

Here’s what Frost wrote in an introduction:
“In employing dialogue to bring these scenes to life, I used source material for direct attribution whenever possible. In its occasional absence I attempted to infer intent from prose to reportage, remaining as true as possible to what I understood to be the spirit of the moment. In rare exceptions, with a dramatist’s license, and in the utter want of eyewitness, I took the liberty of elaborating on those perceptions beyond what I could absolutely verify. It is my hope and belief that in no instance did I violate the underlying truths, laboring only to illuminate them.”

Said Frost: “I attempted to infer intent from reportage, remaining as true as possible to what I understood to be the spirit of the moment.” Frost also admits to elaborating on points he could not verify, although he said he believes that he did not violate the “underlying truths” of the story he tells. But what is truth? And how can one “elaborate,” or imagine, what one cannot see when developing a story. Without dialogue, interior monologue and key descriptions, a story can slip into unexciting, clinical exposition. As a journalist, I would never conceive of employing such tactics to telling a story. As a writer developing a book of non-fiction, I have become intrigued by the thought of inferring, or imagining, what I cannot find.

In his book, Frost tells the story of the 1913 U.S. Open golf tournament, an event rife with drama, tension, historical importance and great characters. Much has been written about this event and the men who played it. Much has also remained unrecorded. Additionally, there is some skepticism about some of the moments that were recorded. For example, who would have accurately recorded the following conversation during a driving rainstorm and during a historical period when summary trumped direct quotations in newspaper accounts?

Frost adds conversation that had never been reported – and, perhaps, had never even said. Here is a sampling:

“Francis, Francis,” said Hoyt, out of breath.
Oh, no, though Eddie. Not this joker again.
“You won’t believe it: Vardon just came in with seventy-eight. Ray shot seventy-six, and Reid’s gone completely, blown up sky-high––”
“Thanks, Frank, that’s good to know.”
“But you know what this means, don’t you?”
“Yeah, we’ve got a pretty good idea,” said Eddie, trying to cut him off.
“You should see what’s going on back at the clubhouse. Pandemonium!” said Frank, ignoring the little caddie. “Everybody’s talking about it, what are you now, four under?”
“Three,” said Eddie quickly.
“Bogeyed five,” said Francis, picking up the pace.
“Well then let me think a second …” said Frank, taking out a scorecard on which he’d written some notes. “That puts you three under for the day, even par for the tournament –– good Lord, you’re two strokes clear of Ray, you’re four ahead of Vardon. You’ve passed them both, Francis. You’ve got a two-shot lead” (Frost 314-315).

Dialogue like this is peppered throughout the story. So when and how to craft dialogue that is unrecorded? As a reader, I am willing to suspend belief so long as the facts are correct. This conversation, like many, is driven by the facts of the story. First, Hoyt is a real person. Second, factual information drives this conversation. We learn Francis’ score and where he stands in regards to other golfers in the tournament. That’s easily verifiable information. In addition, Hoyt comments about the people back at the clubhouse. Fans were going crazy when Francis won, at least according to reports of the time. So Hoyt is fine to say the clubhouse is in “pandemonium.” There is certainly some imagining going on in this passage. It’s easy to imagine Hoyt pulling out a scorecard to calculate the scores; and, it’s also easy to imagine Francis answering calmly since most stories on his life seem to indicate that was his nature. The reader also listens in on the thoughts of Eddie, a 10-year-old caddie. It’s easy to imagine Eddie thinking Hoyt is a joker for running onto the fairway to bother them as they walked toward the next hole.

Did Hoyt actually interrupt them as they played, though? That is unclear. This does not bother me since it is a minor event and since the scene does not divert from the main facts of the story. I would not have created such a scene as a newspaper reporter. But here, I understand Frost’s motives. The conversation drives the story, breaking up longer passages of third-person omniscient explanations and expositions. These conversations draw in the reader.


Bibliography
Frost, Mark. The Greatest Game Ever Played. New York: Hyperion, 2002.


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