I’ve on several occasions derided what I call “sick kids or dead coaches” stories, but not everyone knows what that means. Considering one such story appears in the Best American Sports Writing volume I’m about to review), let me explain.
All “sick kids or dead coaches” stories follow the same structure, beginning with some introductory paragraphs that can be summarized as “John Smith’s life is crap. Here are all the ways it’s crappy.” If it’s a dead coach story, replace “John Smith’s life” with “living in Springfield,” because instead of being about a person, the story’s about a town.
Anyway, after the reader feels horrible about the universe because of this dude’s crappy life, there’s a couple of paragraphs that say something like, “the only thing that makes Smith’s life less crappy is this sport. He’s not good at it, but he loves it because it makes him feel slightly less crappy, so he devotes all his time to it.”
Throw in a quote from some outsider about how heroic this guy is for devoting himself to something that’ll never really solve his problems, conclude it with a paragraph or two about how even though his life sucks, the guy will keep playing until he can’t, and you’re done. If it’s a “dead coaches” story, the quote is about how much the town changed because of the coach, then end with a couple of paragraphs on the minor positive change he brought.
Don’t get me wrong — a few such stories (including some I’ve read in BASW volumes) have been really, really good. But with “sick kids and dead coaches” stories, the writer sacrifices things like creativity, structure, emotional complexity and intelligence and instead tries to exploit the reader’s sense of sentimentality and nostalgia.
That, more than the subject itself, is what bothers the crap out of me.
Anyway, here’s The Best American Sports Writing 2003, edited by Buzz Bissinger.