IT'S BEEN A VERY good year for sports books.
Yet when Australia’s independent booksellers recently revealed the long lists for their annual book-of-the-year awards, not one sports book was included. None. Zilch. Zero. At the time, there were five sports books among the top 16 best-selling Australian books (with a recommended retail price of $25 or more). The public, it seems, enjoy and appreciate Australian sports books more than the industry does.
In one way, perhaps the weirdest omission was the winner of this year’s Walkley Book Award and the William Hill Australian Sports Book of the Year: Chip Le Grand’s superb and well-balanced study of the Essendon drug saga, The Straight Dope. If those awards rated Le Grand research and writing so highly, who are the Indies to think otherwise? Or maybe Something for the Pain, Gerald Murnane’s unique and wonderful horse-racing memoir, is a stranger oversight, because Murnane is a name we don’t usually find on the back pages. (I read Murnane’s treasure-trove in one glorious sitting, and found a bit of myself in many of his tales of the turf. I bet a lot of other punters — but my guess is unfortunately not many Indie Award judges — would feel the same.)
In my view, there are at least two of three other sport books that are equally as good as the work of Le Grand and Murnane, maybe even better. As I said, it’s been a good year for sports books.
I must stress that this is not a criticism of the works that have been nominated for the Indie Awards. I’m sure they are all terrific. I’m equally sure the people organising the Indie Awards are good people. But it is a pity the publishing industry is so reluctant to give due credit when good sports books come along. It happens every year.
Of course, we in the sports publishing industry don’t always help ourselves. Take, for example, a review that appeared last weekend of two of the four Richie Benaud books that have been released in 2015. I presume the reviewer likes his sport, and I wonder why Richie: The Man Behind the Legend wasn’t mentioned, especially given how well the book has been received. I was also a bit peculiar that the reviewer didn’t acknowledge Rob Smyth’s impressive Benaud in Wisden. But what really grated was the reviewer’s easy dismissal of modern sports books, the sweeping suggestion that controversy has become the ‘stock-in-trade’ of today’s sports books and the reference to ‘the chummy informality favoured by too many sporting autobiographies’.
Sports books — like beauty and commentators — are often in the eye of the beholder. It is true that not all sports books published are excellent. Some need more care; some are published for the wrong reasons. I imagine this is true across all genre. It is also true that many sports books cater for an audience of all ages. I was always aware, for example, that when helping Steve Waugh with his cricket diaries that they were read by kids as well as adults, and while this didn’t mean we had to dumb the books down, it would have been equally wrong to turn Steve into Tolstoy. The diaries kept selling in good numbers, and then Steve’s autobiography, Out of my Comfort Zone, sold more than 200,000 copies, which suggests we were doing something right.
For some reviewers, bagging sports books is a habit. If only the Richie reviewer from a couple of paragraphs back had read ‘Inside’, the autobiography of Chris Judd, he’d have found a best-selling sports book that is neither controversial for its own sake nor informal to a fault. Arguably the best footballer of his generation made the wise decision to ask Greg Baum, arguably the best sports writer in Australia, to help him, and the result is a book that I, predominantly a league fan, found compelling and revealing. Baum, like all good ghosts, is clever enough to let Judd tell his own story, which doesn’t make the book chummy. It makes it true.
Far different to ‘Inside’, but just as good in its own way, is Dangerous Games: Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics, by Larry Writer. The late Basil Dickinson, who competed in the triple jump at Berlin and who died at age 98 in October 2013, is just about my sports hero of the year. He was interviewed at length by Writer; his recollections provide the basis for a compelling study of the most controversial Olympics of them all.
I am impressed that Allen & Unwin took a chance with Dangerous Games. There are many editors and publishers in Australia who want sports books to stay in a certain ‘comfort zone’, fit a particular mould. More than once, I have had editors insist on sports books being strictly chronological, as if there is no other way, to the point of putting dates at the start of each chapter. The editors’ desire was to ‘help’ the reader (who they clearly thought was not very bright); the truth was they wanted to help themselves, because they know nothing of sport. I can’t imagine Gerald Murnane copping dates at the start of each chapter of his memoir; nor would Paul Kent, the author of what I reckon is the Australian sports book of the year: Sonny Ball: The Legend of Sonny Bill Williams.
It’s some trick producing a book better than those of Le Grand, Murnane, Judd and Writer. Kent took on his project knowing he’d get no co-operation from the man himself, but this actually adds to the book’s appeal. Sonny Ball is not a conventional biography. The unusual cover and the absence of photos tell a story in itself. The overall result is as much a saga of 21st century sport in Australia and the relationship between heroes, fans and media as it is a book about Sonny Bill. I love the way it ends (the book, I mean; Sonny Bill’s journey is far from over). Kent knows his subject, is appropriately cynical, sceptical and sympathetic, and is an outstanding scribe. He’s written a page-turner of the highest order.
The best cricket book I’ve read this year (apart from Richie, of course) was Test Cricket: The Unauthorised Biography by Jarrod Kimber. If an author’s enthusiasm for his or her subject matter was the only criteria, I would have included That Night: A Decade on, the Story of Australian Football’s Greatest Night, by Adam Peacock. Just about everyone who matters is interviewed, including Lucky Guus. But if depth of research is the key, David Middleton’s ‘Official Rugby League Annual’ wins every time.
The second-best book from overseas I read in 2015 was Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Simon & Schuster, New York), by Charles Leerhsen, a brilliantly researched story that dispels many of the myths that have tarnished Cobb’s reputation. A legend like the Georgia Peach deserves a biographer like Leershen. The absolute No. 1 sports book of 2015 from overseas, in my view, is Professor Tony Collins’ tour de force, The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby (Bloomsbury, London), which is staggering in its detail, but rich in anecdote, too.
If I’m showing my league bias by advocating Sonny Ball and The Oval World, please forgive me. I don’t think I am. There was a time, about 30 years ago, when many people in the Australian publishing industry honestly thought league fans couldn’t read. Thankfully, those times are gone. Next step is to convince those same publishing types that some of the sports books they release each year are more than just money-spinners; they are actually very good.
It’ll happen one day. Probably.
(This story was originally published on December 18, 2015)