“From kindergarten to tenth grade all I really did was play sports, think about sports, dream about sports,” David Shields writes in the prologue to Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine. Then his passion shifted to writing—journalism, novels, and cultural criticism often concerning “an exceedingly verbal person contemplating an exceedingly physical person.” For Black Planet, shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, he attended every game of the Seattle SuperSonics’ 1994-95 season while unearthing thoughts and feelings about race that polite Americans usually leave unspoken. Basketball and sportswriting are also central in his first novel, Heroes, just reissued by the University of Nebraska Press.
Did you enjoy your early years as a jock?
My cultural style, my psyche, my sense of humor, everything about me did not fit in with my jock friends. Other friends of mine—my Jewish friends, who were the math geeks—were jealous that I was a good student and this successful jock. But my supposed jock friends would trip me, they would throw eggs at my house on Halloween, they would make prank calls to my house at three in the morning. They pretended to get along with me because I was a good athlete, and I loved sports, but increasingly there was an odd not-so-subtle tension between them and me. My parents went to antiwar marches, I read different books than they did, I said “black” rather than “Negro.” They were just very different kids.
In Body Politic, the key figure in your transformation from athlete to writer is Howard Cosell: your obsession with Monday Night Football, your impersonation of Cosell in a high-school public speaking class, and how it changed your life.
I’m not sure if I should say this, but to a certain degree that chapter is a fiction. I’m not sure how crucial Cosell was to me in high school, but once you start to write, you convince yourself that certain things were dramatic. When I was in this public speaking class, I did indeed do this impersonation of Howard Cosell, which was a big hit, and I certainly followed him. But what happens once you start to write is the composition process itself takes over and you create the most dramatic story that you can, which is that Howard Cosell saved my life. You know, it just isn’t true. It’s sort of a drama I’m creating in which Howard Cosell is mediating all these issues—sports, Jewishness, language, stuttering, woundedness—and I’m just pushing it to make it interesting. I guess that’s a given.
It’s not a given for many writers.
I feel like before I was an autobiographical fiction writer, and now I’m a fictional autobiographer. To me, there’s almost no difference. What happens when you write what gets framed as nonfiction, it allows you to focus more on the ideas and the issues and the themes than the story per se, and that’s what I find liberating.
I’m aware that Vivian Gornick got into trouble for saying this about a book she wrote. Obviously, if Gary Payton says something, I didn’t make it up, or if the Sonics lost on February 12, I didn’t say they won. But all the private stuff, maybe I tweaked it or collapsed a bit. I tighten things up to make them more dramatic, I exaggerate to the point of inventing. So a lot of the private scenes are at the very least, I would say, poeticized. I guess I think of memory as a dream machine. Like the Howard Cosell stuff. I mean, I’m remembering stuff from high school from 30 years ago. How is that not fiction?
Then why is Howard Cosell such a pivotal figure for you?
The plot of essay is the author’s ambivalence toward something. If I just felt a one-to-one correspondence with Cosell, that would descend into hagiography, or if I was still a real jock, I wouldn’t be writing this book, probably. Instead, Cosell represents a mixed blessing for me. On the one hand, he is the quintessential Other of American culture—at one point I call him “a very verbose and Jewish elephant.” If you were growing up in, say, Queens, Cosell wouldn’t seem quite so Other, but even though I grew up in a Jewish family, I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, and Cosell just seemed amazingly like some uncle of mine coming through the airwaves.
One thing that Cosell does really beautifully is that he would position himself not as part of the game but as adjacent to the game and in a way above the game. And I think when you’re a writer, I think you can’t yield so much to the material. You’ve got to stand astride the material and in a sense dominate it, or you just become a kind of bland journalist. What was so exciting about Cosell is the moment he started to talk he would transform the event. That’s such a writerly thing that he does.
Part of me was an athlete, the kind of athlete Cosell talked about, and part of me was Cosell, and it’s that very split that runs though all of Body Politic. I feel some wannabe kind of identification with these great athletes I wish that I’d become, such as Ichiro or Charles Barkley, and part of me feels almost like I’m a scientist studying them as specimens.
Growing up, did you have a special reverence for Jewish athletes?
I certainly heard about Hank Greenberg from my dad. My father was born in Brooklyn, so I was just an unbelievably insanely devoted Dodgers fan, so of course Sandy Koufax was a major god to me. But when I think of my heroes, they were Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers, Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was not obsessed with Jewish athletes. I think that athletics was a refuge from working through those issues for me, it was kind of an escape into all-Americanness. Whereas as I’ve become a writer, I’ve become more and more involved in questions of Jewishness. This is a little too easy, a little too Lenny Bruce—but there’s a sense in which my sports phase was my goyish phase, and my writerly phase of the last 25 years is my Jewish phase.
Jewishness is a thread running through your work, but it’s not something you foreground as much as your stutter or, in Black Planet, your skin color.
It’s never anything I ever avoid, I bring it up as it feels part of my life. I don’t practice religion, I was raised a secular Jew, and my wife’s not Jewish, and yet if I were to think of five things that define me, I would definitely think of Jewishness as one of them. There’s a wonderful essay I remember by Leonard Michaels about Franz Kafka, and I recall the last line being something like, the less Kafka talks about himself as a Jew, the more profoundly Jewish Kafka was. The mere mention of Jewishness to me seems almost redundant, it’s so obvious to me how deeply immersed I am in Jewish literary tradition.
Beyond Kafka and Leonard Michaels, what do you mean by the Jewish literary tradition?
One thing I mean is the Jewish passion to remake the world. The family that I grew up in was obsessed with moral, social justice, political passion. That’s something nearly all my books wrestle with. Second, I think, an obsession with language, a kind of Talmudic interest in the exegetical gesture of endlessly scrutinizing language, an almost religious belief in close reading. Again, this is not some exclusively Jewish activity, but part of it is growing up as a stutterer, growing up in a highly verbal Jewish family, constantly being surrounded by reading and writing and textual analysis. Our entire family discussion was basically deconstructing texts before there was such a word as deconstruction, At breakfast, we would look at the cornflakes box and we would analyze what social messages were getting conveyed, how this is a bad use of a word, a bad comma.
I think of myself as—I hope—a comic writer, and I feel deeply influenced by Jewish standup comedy, from Kafka to Sandra Bernhard.
What is it about Sandra Bernhard?
I’m very interested in her willingness to say virtually anything. Her interest in breaking taboos, in being nasty, in being risk-taking, in being willing to position herself as the bad girl in the culture, in being willing to say unsettling things about herself, using herself as a symbolic representative of the worst of the culture, being drawn to the culture but being repelled by it—those are all strategies that interest me quite a lot and speak very strongly to my literary strategies. I’m very influenced by a whole series of performance artists like Rick Reynolds, Sandra Bernhard, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Woody Allen, Denis Leary.
There’s a wonderful line by Theodor Adorno that I quote in my previous book, Enough About You, in the chapter on bad reviews. He says a successful work is “one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.” I try to embody the contradiction. The person on the page, that’s definitely a crafted persona. It’s me, but it’s a highly stylized version of myself in which I’m trying to embody the cultural confusion about memoir or race or celebrity.
That’s the way Jews function in the culture in many ways: We hate you and we love you, because you tell us what’s really going on. That’s the classic Jewish prophetic tradition, and without being too grandiose about it, that’s the role.
You often make a point of mentioning that you come from a Jewish leftwing family. Why?
My father changed his name from Schildkraut to Shields in the mid-forties, and that was the name I was born with. Most people that I meet named Shields tend to be Irish Catholic. My name, David Shields, is just not Jewish, and it’s one of the sadnesses of my life. When I was writing my second novel—Dead Languages, a semi-autobiographical novel about a boy growing up with a stuttering problem—for some reason I was thinking of changing my name back to David Schildkraut.
Would it be different writing about race, sports, and celebrity in America as David Schildkraut?
I’ve never really thought of it like that. It would position myself overtly, I think, as a German Jewish writer in some sense, and so it would bring those issues to the fore. I don’t know.
One essay in Body Politic takes on sports films, and how many of them are basically Christian allegories, and yet you find yourself drawn to them, moved by them.
The resurrection-sports movie is your chance to be a covert Christian in the same way I think being a Yankee fan functions that way for many Jewish New Yorkers. I get in serious debates with friends who live in New York who are Jewish and who are Yankee fans, which is, like, it’s so disgusting to me. I yield to no one in my hatred of the Yankees. And it’s just so weird to me how these otherwise rational Jewish men just want to be Mickey Mantle, they want to be Derek Jeter. I certainly have my own version of it, but the Yankees have always functioned that way for Jewish New Yorkers.
I’m doing this thing with Jonathan Lethem at this bookstore in SoHo on why sports are a force that gives us meaning, and I feel like Jonathan and I became friends when he told me that he was a Mets fan. Not that I really care, I don’t really follow baseball anymore, but to me, you’ve got to root for the underdog, and the idea of rooting for the Yankees seems to me so bizarre. You don’t want to root for the majority culture, it seems to me not a tradition out of which I come.
These are not casual choices, and so whether it’s the Yankees or the Mets or the Dodgers or the X or the Y. Friends who have been friends a long time, I mean, we literally have stopped talking because we can’t talk rationally about, say, the Yankees. It’s just so weird that people really do work through their own personalities through the symbolic narrative of sports loyalty, in a really strange and complicated way.
Has sports loyalty taken the place of religion?
Obviously for some people it hasn’t, but people want to belong to some kind of oceanic force. You want to belong to a tribe in some way, you want to feel some transcendent crowd. For people who do not have a religious or political or military loyalty, sports is a very strange way to express passion, but I think it’s clearly pulling on the same drive.
What makes sports so interesting for me is that it is completely trivial, it has absolutely no purpose in the world, but people pour enormous human drive onto sports. When you look at sports carefully, you can see so much about the human animal. Because people think it’s a trivial world, but it’s almost like watching a teenager stare at themselves in the mirror. On the one hand what they’re doing is completely trivial, but if you know what to look at you can see how much they’re telling you about their psyche.
So who’s going to win the NBA Championship?
You know, I have not watched a single second of the NBA playoffs. Ever since writing Black Planet, I don’t think I’ve watched a single basketball game. This always either disappoints or amazes people.
Did you overdose on basketball?
That’s my basic explanation. This sounds kind of boring, but I just feel like I’m really busy. I write full-time, I teach full-time, I have a wife and daughter, and we try and urge Natalie not to watch very much television and I feel like I definitely don’t want to be sitting there with my Doritos and my beer and be watching basketball games. Part of it is boring commercial television—I just have trouble watching it. And part of it is the Sonics are really bad. When local teams are good, it’s hard not to get caught up in them a bit. I’m fascinated by sports as a cultural drama, but God, I definitely have other things on my mind.
What’s your next project?
I just finished a new manuscript called Positions: The Arc of a Body. It’s a meditation on the human body, but instead of being in the public realm of the sports arena it’s in the private realm of the evolution and decomposition of the human body as lived at ground level. It basically takes a body—my body, but other people’s bodies as well—from childhood to adolescence to middle age to old age to death. And next I’m going to write a novel.
Are you looking forward to returning to fiction?
I feel like I never really left.