Monday, February 11, 2013

Baseball Statistics are Mostly Bullshit

Here is my version of a baseball post. I have played, watched and studied baseball for most of my 22 years here on Earth. It is not only my favorite sport but one that can be both beautifully simple and maddeningly difficult to understand. The pitcher throws the ball, the batter hits the ball and runs the bases to score a run while the prevention of scoring a run is an out. Nine players, nine innings. Three outs. Its majesty cannot be overstated. It is everything an anachronism should be: the players wear wool caps and striped pants with belts. There is no clock; nowhere to run away from a victory or defeat. Umpires wear blazers and the bats are wooden. 

A post on Grantland today made me think of baseball and the way I see it versus the average fan. For full disclosure, I have read some Bill James and also Michael Lewis' Moneyball cover to cover at least twice. I am fascinated by a sport that is so dedicated to its statistics, records and numbers. But, the same people who run this game have no use for these numbers in running a team (otherwise known as "Why Adam Dunn is still in the MLB.") Jonah Keri wrote "The Fifteen Worst Contracts in Baseball" (it can be found here: and he wrote, "...the cost for a win on the open market is between five and six million dollars." 

That's where I raise an eyebrow. 

Obviously if teams were just buying wins (not like those jokers Cashman, Epstein, Dombrowski, and Colletti do) but actually paying cash for wins in the standings, this would make a playoff season (assuming 90-95 wins, or the 20+ games the Tigers will be up on the Indians in September) cost $450-500 million. Since we don't buy wins, we pay players to produce wins, no one spends that much, not even Steinbrenner in the late 90s. But how those wins are achieved and recorded is another story. In this episode I will break down some statistical measures in baseball and explain its merit or uselessness. 

Error- "In baseball statistics, an error is the act, in the judgment of the official scorer, of a fielder misplaying a ball in a manner that allows a batter or baserunner to advance one or more bases, when such an advance would have been prevented given ordinary effort by the fielder."-Wikipedia. Errors are partially useful and otherwise not useful. True, you can devise a fielder's worth based on the number of errors he commits in a season. But this stat isn't fair to the fielder. An error is recorded when the scorer expected an action and it didn't occur. There is no mention of errors in relationship to a defensive shift (ie to turn a double play) where, because the fielder was out of his natural position his range changed and he did not reach a ball that he otherwise could have taken. Errors recorded are just as much about luck as they are skill. And God forbid we consider errors given on throws. Who truly receives the error? the baseman who missed it or the fielder who threw it? Defensive statistics are difficult in baseball, but they won't get better until we move away from using errors as a baseline. I would prefer a method that makes a percentage where "clean outs recorded" is divided by "total balls attempted." This would produce a number like a batting average that shows how many outs a fielder records based upon the number of plays he attempts. 

Save- "A pitcher can earn a save by completing ALL three of the following items:

1.Finishes the game won by his team.
2.Does not receive the win.
3.Meets one of the following three items:
a.Enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches at least one inning.
b.Enters the game with the tying run either on base, at bat, or on deck.
c.Pitches effectively for at least three innings." -Baseball Almanac

Closers are the most overrated and overpaid members of a pitching staff. Rarely does the situation at the end of the game allow a save opportunity and when it does there is some magician throwing cutters (Mariano Rivera, anyone?) who comes out and faces two batters and ends the game. Saves are worthless statistics because of the requirements to achieve one. And what about a starter who throws a complete game? Why isn't he worthy of a save? Or the middle reliever who comes in during the sixth and completes the game? Why not give him a save for finishing the win that the starter began? Smart Gm's (See Bean, Billy and Jocketty, Walt) get young pitchers, have them throw fastballs in the ninth to record saves for a couple of years and then sell them off at a profit to big money clubs. Saves are meaningless but for the starting pitchers and relievers who make the save happen.

ERA- Earned runs average. "(Number of Earned Runs x 9) divided by (Number of Innings Pitched)"-Baseball Almanac. Look this stat is useful in some ways but otherwise overused by dilettantes who think that ERA directly correlates to pitching output. I don't even want to broach what constitutes an "earned run" and an "unearned run" because as far as I am concerned every run that goes up on the board is earned by the offense. Learning baseball from my father, which is a very defensive minded approach to the game I do not give the defense any break for unearned runs. THE ONLY WAY AN OFFENSE SCORES IS THROUGH A DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWN. Pitcher throws a home run ball, the shortstop misses a line drive, etc. Since the defense controls the ball, the offense must react. Being a reactionary force, the offense plays within the bounds set by the defense. Being proactive on defense will bring baseball success.  (As an example, my father believes that the best baseball games are won by a score of 1-0 or 2-1 where the defense plays its positions perfectly and the offense plays small ball and trades outs for advancing bases.)  Getting back on topic, I say that WHIP (detailed below) is a far better statistic than ERA when considering pitching output.

RBI- Runs Batted In. Look, this stat is bandied around as a measure of hitting output. It's why Prince Fielder got a $200 million contract to come to Detroit. Because given the opportunity to hit an RBI he succeeds more than he fails. But consider this:

If no one was on base, there is no opportunity to hit an RBI.

Yes, this is not a paradox and something that a little leaguer understands. But look at it again:

Without a baserunner, there is no possibility that the hitter can record an RBI.

Now, some of you might stop and look at me like my friend Andy did when I said, "If everyone was playing at home on Opening Day there would be no games." (His response was classic, 'You're not incorrect, but why are you saying that like its some magical discovery?') But seriously, without a good lineup around him, Fielder would not be able to record RBIs and get a contract as fat as he is. RBI understates the action that was already completed by another hitter. Plus, how many runners score from first base? (certainly not Prince) So, the baserunner probably already advanced to second or third under his own power. We shouldn't discredit the double that preceded the RBI. As outs are the supreme measure of baseball, and what you do within a finite 27 outs defines offensive production, one could say that a double by Miguel Cabrera is just as important as Fielder knocking him home. And it becomes even more valuable when Fielder doesn't hit the ball to the outfield wall and thus, cannot advance past first. He has now become a detriment to the next hitter seeking an RBI because he can't move his fat ass around the bases.

That's pretty much the end of my rant. I appreciate most baseball stats and think that real value can be derived from them. However, I think that at times the stats are skewed on offense to highlight individual accomplishments that are not due to the individual, but instead due to the offensive players ahead of him in the order. We should credit the hitters who did not make outs and advanced themselves on base to give Fielder the opportunity to record RBIs, not just Fielder.

Also on defense I think that stats are too focused on the defense as a unit and need to be tailored to account for individual performance, such as considering how many clean outs are recorded by a 2B or how many hits a pitcher surrenders. But below are three stats that I think are undervalued by the baseball cognoscenti and should be used more when we determine who is truly producing success in baseball. Keep in mind that wins are the ultimate goal. Not strikeouts, walks, runs, hits, doubles. Just wins. Teams use those stats but they are secondary to wins because only through wins can we see who the best team is and who the best producers are. Buying wins is the name of the game and this fact was not lost on Bill James or Billy Beane, but it seems to have been lost in the big money clubhouses of the Cubs and Red Sox.

WHIP- "(Hits + Walks) divided by Innings Pitched"-Baseball Almanac. This is the absolute best, bar none, 100% most useful pitching statistic that exists. Period. I love the WHIP so much because it cuts through the ERA and K bullshit. Put plainly, the WHIP says, on average how many baserunners do you allow per inning? The best pitchers have a WHIP that hovers between 0.97-1.31. Basically, your best pitchers average one baserunner per inning. This stat is independent of innings pitched and truly proves success on the mound as it proves that good pitchers do not allow baserunners.

OPS-On Base Percentage+Slugging Percentage- This stat is good, certainly better than measuring hitters in terms of RBI, because it combines two crucial factors for hitters, the ability to get on base and the ability to hit for power. As outs are precious, this stat values hitters who do not record outs and give their team more chances to record runs. Hitters who score high in OPS are usually the best in the biz.

WAR-Wins Above Replacement. Basically taken, this stat considers how many wins a given player produces for their team opposed to a replacement player. This stat is still being developed and perfected, but at its best it tells us who in MLB is earning their money, and starting job, and whos performance says that the job could be better served by someone else. The median is 0. This means that if all players were equal no one would replace them because there is no one better or worse than the other. The best players in MLB (Verlander, Pujols) record a WAR of 7-8. This means that they give their team 7 or eight more wins than the team would achieve without the player. Bad players record negative WAR, as Adam Dunn did in 2012 with a WAR of -4. This means that keeping Dunn in the lineup not only produced no wins that they would have without him, but also that he cost the White Sox four wins they would have otherwise attained without him.

Put bluntly, the point of this work is that Adam Dunn sucks and you shouldn't overvalue Prince Fielder's RBI ability because the entire lineup contributes to it.

And Adam Dunn sucks.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

For My Dad

(Yes, this is my version of Paul Harvey's speech from the Ram Trucks commercial)

And on the ninth day...(having already made the farmer)

God looked down at his planned paradise and said "I need a protector." 

So God made a firefighter.

God Said, "I need someone willing to get up before dawn, clean his truck, take runs all day, clean his truck again, eat a cold dinner and stay up past midnight at a head on collision."

So God made a firefighter.

God said, "I need someone to stay up all night trying to save a family's home from the flames only to watch it collapse, then dry his eyes and say "roll the hose." I need someone who will revive crackheads, swing an axe to save people trapped on the other side, cut the roof off of a car without hurting the occupants, who can treat three injured people with a half empty medic bag and cops breathing down his neck to clear the scene. Who, because of vacations and layoffs, will work his 24 go home and sleep for six hours then work overnight overtime only to return the next day for his tour at 0700."

So God made a firefighter.

God said, "I need someone strong enough to lift old people and carry hose yet gentle enough to comfort children and donate Christmas presents to the needy and spend his off days filling the boot for MDA. It has to be someone who would work late and complete all of his run reports after cleaning up Crew 2's mess. Someone who'd carry, hold, fight, save, live, survive and thrive. Someone who'd be there for his brothers by watching their backs and picking them up when they fell.
Someone who will miss baseball games, gymnastics performances, birthdays and anniversaries; who would laugh, sigh, and reply with smiling eyes when his son said 'It's ok dad. I'm glad that you're here now." 

So God made a firefighter.

For my dad, Ralph Conrad. Lancaster Firefighter/Paramedic and proud member of IAFF Local 291.


Today on Twitter I saw a review of the TFM Book by Tucker Max. This interests me on several levels; mostly that I have read every book and story that Max has published and while his exploits are ludicrous and the humor is sophomoric the fact remains that Max is an accomplished author. He can enthrall a reader and delight with very visual descriptions of the things that he got into while in college. As an undergraduate student and a fraternity member myself I enjoy the party-based womanizing antics of such a man. And on another note TFM is a cultural movement that hits close to home for me. TFM (Total Frat Move) began a couple years ago as a website ( and has become a staple in fraternity houses around the country. Describing TFM is like describing my fraternity's ritual to the uninitiated. I would suggest reading it and seeing what they have to offer for yourself.

But, it wasn't Max's review (though it was positive) that interests me. What spawned this post was a quote by Max about literary criticism in general. He writes:

"I HATE critics who think that their opinion of a book should somehow become the defacto truth about the book. Bullshit. I cannot stand 50 Shades of Grey (yes I've read it), but millions of people disagree; OK fine. My opinion is valid for me, and wrong for them.

That is the problem with professional criticism. Critics stopped being relevant when they stopped writing to inform and contextualize, and when they started writing to signal who they are, to display their identity by their stance on what they are writing about. Criticism should never be about the critic, but that's what it has become, and that's why no one cares about professional criticism anymore.

I'm off my soapbox now."
(Taken from the full review at

I can see Max's point. Critics become popular and more successful and then their writing becomes less a companion to the original author's words and more about their own thoughts and impressions. It is akin to a music review in Rolling Stone becoming larger than the band's album or an art review that feels superior to the original painting. We should respect the original creator and appreciate his work. Right or wrong, good or bad is all subjective. The objective point is this: the book got published, the painting was commissioned and the album released. The artist made money doing what he loves and moves on. We bask in the afterglow below and in the words of my roommate Andrew, "respect the hustle." Without the original there would be nothing to review and criticism would not exist.

However, Max is not faultless here. I appreciate that his review was positive (I'll spare you the details, basically he was proud of the TFM guys for growing their brand and that he was tired of reading fratire stories as he claims he has moved on, yet he has published nothing new since Hilarity Ensues. Still rolling in the profits, eh Tucker?) The fact is this: Max's celebrity drew the TFM boys to ask him for a review. Without "inventing a genre" and making a movie and publishing several books no one would care what Max has to say about the story. TFM's readership will increase regardless if Max's review was positive or negative just because it is Max who wrote a review. Tucker's celebrity allowed him to speak intelligently on the book and is completely about the critic.

Similarly, when I wrote about John Updike's critical essays last semester those reviews were entirely about Updike. Reading these essays thirty-plus years after they were published I can assure you that I did not read them for insight into the author or the original work. I read them because Updike wrote them. Being a published author himself, Updike's words became paramount and larger than the work itself.

On another scale, my mentor D.G. Myers is a working critic and a professor. He gets advance copies of stories and chooses which to review. He become flooded with works and must wade through them to pick the best that are worthy of his ideas. This is where modern criticism lies and the reality that Mr. Max does not like: the fact that there are more novels published than competent critics to review them. Myers, to his readership, is a sort of "last word" on the books he reviews. He tells his readers what he liked and what he didn't as well as notes on the author and the prose overall. Because the readers trust his ideas and his expertise in literature, they take his decision into account when choosing books for their own shelf.

So, I agree with Mr. Max. The original work is what counts the most. We must give the author his due and respect that he has written something worthy of publishing. Without authors there are no critics. Many people have made careers and livelihoods offering their opinions on another writers words. But this is my divergent point: a modicum of celebrity and readership goes a long way. No one asked me or my fraternity brothers to review the TFM book. Why should they? We aren't published authors or respected writers. Tucker Max made his fortune writing outrageous stories about himself and his friends. The TFM gang respects his input and solicited him for a review knowing full well that the content of the review was irrelevant and a moot point. Just being able to connect the phrases "TFM" and "Tucker Max" gives the TFM Book legitimacy and creditably as readers of Max's works are more likely to pick up the TFM Book than readers of other genres. Money changes hands and everyone goes home happy. John Updike's criticism was notable not because of the works that he reviewed, but instead the works themselves became more important because Updike chose to write about them. Here too, TFM became more important because Tucker Max wrote about it.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


I love diners, positively adore the old fashioned counter service and delight in the food that was cooked on a flat top grill and served to me as soon as it was finished. My love affair with the diner began when I was a child. My father has been working on engines since he was in middle school and became a mechanic after college. He is very experienced and talented at nursing engines back to life. When I was young he would go wrench on work trucks for his friend who owned an oil drilling company. He would bring me with him. It would be an adventure going to the shop and the oil fields to see what was going on and what needed service. Sometimes we would go as far as West Virginia but we would always stop for lunch. This being rural Appalachia all of the towns were small but each one had a diner. Generally a small storefront on the main drag in town that served pancakes and eggs in the morning, cheeseburgers for lunch and a daily special like fried chicken or chicken fried steak. Eschewing the tables and booths, we always chose counter service. Sitting on a high bar stool and seeing the grill and deep fryer behind the counter was amazing to me. Watching pink patties transformed into brown burgers and tan goo frying into golden brown pancakes was quite a sight for a young boy. Since those trips when I was young I have always loved eating at diners. Sure, the food isn't good sometimes and it isn't good for you all of the time. But the diner is America. It is the refuge of the working man and the haven for the farmer. Every rural town that's worth a shit has a diner. My hometown has the Snack Bar, New Lexington to the south has the Corner News and Glenford to the east isn't worth a shit because there is no diner there, just meth.

To the uninitiated I have some tips because diners can be daunting if you don't know what you're doing. The patrons are regulars and don't need menus. The wait staff is underpaid and overworked and can be gruff. Navigating this jungle of kitschy decor and greasy eggs is worth it for the experience; because where else can you eat eggs and grits with unlimited coffee for $5.50? No where I know of, brother.

First: THE DINER IS NOT FOR FAMILIES. Don't bring your entire brood and expect appropriate seating. They invented a diner for families: its called Bob Evans and your wife prefers to eat there anyway. Put bluntly, the diner doesn't have a table for six so get the fuck out. The diner is not solely a masculine place but it's just not big enough to seat multiple families. The tables are too small and only an asshole occupies all of the bar stools with his wife and progeny. When your wife is busy on a Saturday morning, bring the kids. Let them eat chocolate chip pancakes and drink Pepsi at 10am and then dump their sugar rushed, chocolate covered bodies on your woman when she gets home. Bring your significant other when its just the two of you and sit and drink coffee and people watch while someone else has to deal with your kids. But the equation of husband+wife+kids equals no service.

EGGS COME THREE WAYS: SCRAMBLED, OVER EASY OR SUNNY SIDE UP. You want eggs over medium? What is it, Nancy Boy, your period? The idea with this point is that you should not get fancy at the diner. What's on the menu is what goes into the dishes. No exceptions. Don't order an omelet and ask for no onions and extra spinach because that's just not going to happen. If you want plain eggs then get those. The diner has plenty of combinations that you can order that substitutions aren't necessary.

FINALLY: TIP. TIP. TIP. Look your server is busy and s/he deserves a tip. Diners are the kind of high volume/ low profit establishments that break the "15% tip" mold. The average ticket at a diner is less than $10 but it requires full counter service including drink refills. So you leaving $1.02 on a $6.98 breakfast makes you look like an asshole, ok? I can hear you, "But Cory, that's about 15%." Yeah and I'm sure you will be ok with eggs that are 20% cooked next time. Here's my rule of thumb: $3.00 tip if its less than $10 total. Over $10 can use the 20% rule. Trust me, your server will appreciate the extra dollar than you do to keep it. She earned it by keeping the coffee hot and smiling while you hemmed around looking at a menu.

My favorite diners in Columbus are Buckeye Donuts and Jack and Bennys. Its not about what they have to eat (I order almost the same thing at every diner) its that they have been around for so long and can make a profit off of eggs and orange juice. Its stable and comforting. I can walk in and get the same thing today that I could have gotten when Nixon was president. Not much changes at a diner. Buckeye Donuts is a campus place but just sit at the counter sometime. See the old Greek man in the back cutting donut dough and watch the gyro meat roll around on its vertical spit. They usually play XM Radio 70s on 7 and are quick to refill the coffee.

Jack and Bennys at High and Hudson is also busy but good. They have a Zomex juicer in the corner that produces fresh OJ from throwing oranges in the bin on top. They don't split checks and I would suggest bringing cash because their credit machine looks broken. It has a wall of OSU stuff that is worth a gander and an electric clock above the counter that drew my hung over interest for several minutes.

What to eat? Well I usually eat the same thing everytime. Called the "businessman's breakfast" at the Echo in Hyde Park, Cincinnati or the "rise and shine" at the aforementioned Bob Evans it is two eggs, hash browns, bacon and toast. I like eggs over easy, dry wheat toast and coffee and water to drink. Its enough to warm me up and make me feel like the expansive, wasteful and Imperialist American that I am. People in third world countries surviving on corn paste and goat's milk? Ha! I ate more than that just now, and its only breakfast. America: proclaiming dominance once again, one three egg omelet at a time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The End, My Only Friend

Coming near to the end of this semester, and subsequently this course, I am compelled to write here about the course overall. Consider this a conclusion or a mopping up of the semester. It might be choppy in some areas, but overall will explain my process and journey from this course.

First, credit where credit is due. Professor Myers has been a wonderful guide and mentor. I appreciate his knowledge not only on literature and criticism, but also on life and America through the years. We have had many conversations together and I have learned much from him. This semester went well and flowed easily from one book to another, just as we had planned. I like the stories we chose and if there was one regret I had it would be that we have run out of time and cannot complete any more stories. Professor Myers also pushed me to consider the blog format as an effective medium to share my ideas and opinions and I thank him also for that. If it wasn't for the blog, I would have been pressed into writing a research thesis about these themes and stories, something that I loathe to consider as an undergraduate student. I know that publishing your work and researching topics is the mantra of the nation's universities, but I am a man of the times and like this casual online medium. Plus, my friends and family have the opportunity to read it and I like that. So, blogs good; thesis bad. (And full disclosure, I did not write this paragraph to garner praise from Myers. He is already too full of himself to receive anymore unwarranted praise. This was my public thanks to him because he works hard and I appreciate him taking the time to mentor me as he has.)

When I came across the nucleus of an idea to do independent study Myers and I were discussing Updike, I think, and his work with the Bech novels. So it came to be that we studied Updike because he is one of my favorites and Myers knew enough about him and the contemporary style to discuss these things with me. I cannot consider another writer that I am as fond of who also has the vast library of published works that Updike has. He has enough to fill a semester and more. Sure, I could have slogged through Hemingway or debated the merits of Heller with Myers, but Updike, unassuming, details oriented writer that he is offered the best opportunity to study fiction for me. Now, I come away with something more. I hold a deeper understanding of the writer and his ideas than when I had picked up a paperback of Rabbit is Rich for the first time. I now see more than the words on the page and the characters, I understand better the themes and motivations that the author put into his works. I am glad we studied such a storied (yes, pun) author and would do it again.

As a critic and a reader, I am more astute at discerning meaning within a story. Myers has his own rules for critiquing literature and Updike had his too, which were some of the most widely known in the world of criticism. But as a reader and student I have come up with my own too. These are aimed at people like myself who don't do it for pay but have more than a passing interest in the works that they read.

1. What is the author saying? This is the most fundamental question and the one that requires the most time spent to me. As a reader your first priority is to understand what the author is saying. Now, this does not mean parrot back what is printed on the page. Things are not always what they seem. Read the words and decide what the author is saying. This can be in subtext, or in plot details but most of all see and understand what is being done on the page.

2. To whom is he speaking? As a reader, you singularly are not always the recipient of the message. The author might be speaking through his words and through you to someone else. Whether it is a person, group or society in general it helps to see 1. what the author is saying and 2. to whom is he saying it?

3. Sweat the small stuff. Authors like Updike love to throw major themes and morality judgments at you through asides, actions, plot and objects. Just because it isn't said by a character doesn't mean that it isn't important. Don't gloss over the smaller things because a master of the mundane like Updike will throw major points at you there and you will miss them.

4. Speak up. Don't like a book? Say so. Think that a novel won't have staying power into the next decade? Preach, sister. Want to demean and degrade an author for his choice of setting or flat characters? Do it. Look, in my opinion fewer people are reading novels these days. Electronic formats have driven the masses away from books in favor of news and magazine articles. This means that writers will do more in an attempt to drive sales. But do not forget quality writing in the face of more sales. My point here is this, writers need to know if they are doing their jobs well or not. How else will they know if they are writing good stories or not? When you read, talk about it with other people and express yourself. Share your opinions and back them up with your arguments.

5. Jeffrey Eugenides sucks. Actually that's not a rule, just wanted to again express my distaste over The Marriage Plot which Myers loves and has sold well. Basically its a novel about books. Yawn. The conventions that Eugenides uses are campy and outdated to me (giving characters names that point to inner attributes, quoting French metaphysics that nobody has ever heard of, and the 1980's East Coast college setting) and overall it was about 150 pages too long. More length does not a good book make.

6. Electronic or paper, just read. I have a Kindle and like it. But i still buy paperbacks sometimes. I cannot say either format is better, I just want more people to use one of either to read more novels.

Those are my rules for fiction and have come in handy as this semester went. Sometimes it is critical, especially when you keep reading stories by the same author, to get back to basics and consider the building blocks of a story. Getting the ground up approach where you take the big things first and stack the details on top helped me with some of the works that shared themes or characters because getting bogged down is no fun.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What Held Updike Back

As we finish this semester, we have explored many crevices of the life and times of one John Updike; an American author, novelist and critic who's works have outlasted his lifespan and will continue for decades to come. I have thoroughly enjoyed this study and it has made me a better reader and critic. We studied sex, the suburbs, religion and America through the decades. However, a fair assessment and conclusion is what comes at the end: a legacy. There is no doubt that Updike is a literary legend, a titan in anyone's measure. But there is a glaring flaw to his career which saddens me, this is the fact that Updike left no literary progeny. While Hemingway can point to Mark Twain as his inspiration and model as an author, Myers and I found no such relationship for Updike. He is a man who lived and wrote alone. Taking on the American suburbs with the view for the contemporary is admirable and bold. But, there is no one who does this same thing now. No one comments on America in such a fashion or centers his works on a character like Rabbit.

Why does no one hold the flame for Updike today? I have several ideas as to why but there is one that stands out more than others. Updike has no followers because in his works he held total control. When I say that I mean this: Updike's characters said and did exactly what he told them to say and do and they did no more. Never does a man like Rabbit or Nelson take on lives or personas outside of their respective typecasts. After the first two books, Rabbit's moves and mannerisms become predictable and somewhat stale. He continues the same choices that got him into the messes he started with his family and job life and does not see that the troubles continue. Updike was too afraid to relinquish control. This is tricky because all fiction is made up and characters are all written by an author; but consider this: Yossarian changed war novels forever. Period. Everyone since Heller has written about war with a cockeyed view. Long gone are the days of the stoic soldiers fighting for a cause, knife gritted between their teeth, hacking and slashing their way through nameless and faceless enemies for God and country. All Quiet on The Western Front is a beautiful novel about war and the individual, but it comes nowhere near the realization that war is an insane proposition. Those soldiers of the Kaiser fought because it was their duty and death in the field was just bad fortune. No. Today's war author considers the other guys, after all they are humans too, and sees that the "good" guys and "bad" guys want the same thing: to survive a situation in which they have little control and the forces in action are greater than themselves. Yossarian helps us to see the futility of war and its effect on the individual. Making war a farce was Heller's calling and he did it quite well. But without Yossarian none of this would be possible. Heller sort of gave his careening bombardier a push and the character took off by himself. Yossarian Lives is not just the cult slogan for those of us who love Catch 22, it is also a literary saying that Yossarian lives outside of the novel, that is his situations and personality can exist outside of the book. Updike never allowed his characters such freewill.

Also none of his characters are "smarter" than him. All of his books are written in third person. And where a smart character would say something intuitive or intelligent or do something outside of himself Updike's ever present and omniscient Narrator jumps in and offers expert analysis and commentary. Where Updike should be offering thoughts on baseball in Rabbit, Redux it is instead the Narrator acting in his stead. Rabbit would be a different and more interesting character if he were allowed to offer Updike's thoughts on baseball himself instead of the Narrator. If Rabbit offered some salient point on the national pastime or discussed how the forced interaction with his father in law and son made him feel would be better for all involved. It would make Updike look that much more benevolent as an author because he allowed his character to voice Updike instead of Updike voicing Updike, it would be better for Rabbit because it would show the audience that Rabbit is capable of complex thought and further it would be better for the audience and longevity of the work because instead of the author directly speaking he would offer his thoughts through the filter of the character which is not only more empathetic but intersting too. Its like the voice over in a sitcom or the future Ted Mosby talking to his dumbass kids in the insufferable How I Met Your Mother. (My hatred for that show deserves its own post but suffice to say that I find Ted to be laughably weak and creepily fixated on getting married, I find Robin to be an unpleasant distraction if she isn't going to end up as Ted's wife. Further I think that Jason Segal and his redheaded wife don't add anything and that Neil Patrick Harris' back must be killing him from carrying this enema of a show.) 

Further, this fits in line with Updike's fervent devotion to Realism. Updike always wrote within the realm of the real because he lacked the imagination to see outside of those walls. Why didn't Ahmad blow up the tunnel in Terrorist? Because Updike has no concept of the mind of a terrorist, and since he cannot comprehend those machinations he leaves the end of the story with no conclusion other than the tunnel is intact and our fair weather terrorist going home to live another day in Jersey. A more imaginative writer (or at least one who did his homework) could conceive Ahmad blowing up the tunnels in a tribute to his deadbeat father or as an anger fueled rejection of his mother's lax Catholicism. What I am saying is that because Updike only wrote and acted within the bounds of that which he could see and comprehend, he bungled the end of Terrorist and showed the limits of his writing prowess.

Now, it pains me to write so disparagingly about Updike. He is a great author and man in his own right and my undergraduate complaints certainly don't permeate the vast library he wrote. But don't forget that Updike only just died in 2009. He is still widely read and consulted as an expert on words and ideas. However, he has no family tree. Consider this: great coaches are measured on their wins and championships but they are also judged on how many successful coaches they produced too. Woody Hayes won championships, but guess what? He taught Bo Schembechler, Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian and Earle Bruce. Good list, but if you take it a step further those guys brought Pete Carrol, Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, Nick Saban and Ron Zook among others by their tutelage. Now if you add up the number of football championships that have been won because of Woody Hayes it is astounding. This is my point, success breeds success. Rarely is there one man who is successful and doesn't pass the good stuff along. Updike breaks the trend. He is the exception, the man who didn't have a protege.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Time Magazine lists are Foolhardy

Time Magazine compiled a list of the top ten Updike books. The full list can be seen here: . While researching the internet for more information on Picked Up Pieces I came across this list. I feel book lists are flawed, ranking authors by novels is a subjective procedure. This list only appeals to the following groups of people:

1. Fans of Updike-If you are already a fan of the man's works you would be inclined to view a list like this because you either want a) your opinions on the author and his works validated or b) you want to read more Updike and don't know where to find it. These people really don't need a list like this.

2. Literary Critics-This subset is responsible for book lists. They spend time compiling lists like these and reading lists by other critics. For them there is relatively little skin in the game. Right or wrong these lists don't affect them.

3. People Who Only Read What's Popular In That Moment (AKA Jonathan Franzen's entire fanbase)- These people don't have any real interest in fiction or authors. They lack the necessary skills to discern good literature from bad. These are the people who buy novels because Oprah tells them to; they are also the people who consider Fifty Shades of Grey to be a quality novel because it was popular and contained graphic sex, never realizing that the books were sensational and smut. I have little time for people like these because they don't really read fiction nor do they really understand what goes into a novel to make it work. They see an Oprah sticker or Franzen on the cover of Time with the headline "Next Great American Author" and buy his garbage without a second thought. 

Basically I don't like these lists because of what they leave in (popular works and big name authors regardless of content) and what they leave out (novels by lesser known authors that have put something real into their novels). I will now give you the entire list and my comments on each selection.

1. The Rabbit Books- Not only picking one of the tetrology, they decide to include all of the stories. I would have separated them out because I feel that Rabbit is Rich is the best of the four. Rabbit Redux is the weakest and Rabbit at Rest and Rabbit, Run fall somewhere in the middle. I think it is fitting that these books come first on the list, they are the books that not only made Updike famous but they are also the first Updike I read and loved.

2. The Early Stories 1953-1975- Now, I have not read much of Updike's short stories but those that I have are excellent with A&P being by far my favorite. Maybe ranked a little high but by writing for the New Yorker Updike gained influence, a voice and an audience. His short stories are bright and use their sparse words well providing description in a small space.

3. The Centaur- This won Updike the National Book Award and is one that I have not read, so I won't comment further. If it's good enough for the critics then it's good enough for me.

4. Couples- Excellent novel and the one that sparked the sexual revolution in America. Ranked fourth is well enough because it is not as widely known as his later works but it is influential for many reasons. Basically know this: if Couples describes the Revolution, then Rabbit is the aftermath.

5. Bech- Widely read and known trilogy of stories about a Jewish novelist, Updike really was at the height of his powers in the 1970's and this work reflects that. However, at least one working critic (and oddly enough it is my mentor D.G. Myers) argues that Bech doesn't work because Updike isn't Jewish and can't accurately describe the lives of contemporaries like Malamud, Bellow and Roth. I think this book is too high on the list not because of notoriety but because it just didn't fit.

6. Picked Up Pieces- Updike's first work of literary criticism and the first work that proved he can not only write his own works but discern in other's writing what is good and what isn't. I was working on this one this week and will write about it further down in the post. 

7. Hugging the Shore- I know nothing about this work and frankly didn't know that it existed. A shame too, because I wish that I could go further but my time is limited within the semester format.

8. Witches of Eastwick- Lame. 

9. Roger's Version- Once again not a book that I know well. Whoever compiled this list did well. Maybe my above comments are incorrect, these lists serve some purpose.

10. Just Looking: Essays on Art- AHA! Here is the art book. Of the three secret things, Updike covers all but this in the novels we have covered. Clearly we needed to do our homework next time and consider more works outside of the mainstream. After all, Updike wrote for over fifty years so naturally some works might fall between the cracks. 

So, overall this list is incomplete to me because I haven't covered all of them. But further it means that Updike was noteworthy enough to warrant a list of his own.

As far as Picked Up Pieces is concerned, to understand Updike's criticism you have to first look at his "rules for criticism." There are five of them and they go as follows:

 1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Basically the main thrust of these rules is technical in nature and asks the reviewer to limit the scope of the criticism to everything that the author intended. Pieces does this almost to a fault. In fact, this work of criticism is sometimes too nice and gives authors too much credit. I think this speaks to Updike being new at criticism and perhaps not wanting to step on too many toes. But he does follow his rules and consider the realizations of criticism that everything is on the table and most importantly, after recognizing the boundaries that the author created, everything is fair game.
Picked Up Pieces is the first try of a man to enter the world of criticism and I give Updike much credit for crossing the boundary into "the other side" from author to critic. It's tough for me to read but somewhat makes sense. Updike proves that he is America's man of words with this and his other criticism because he successfully expands his career into writing all sorts of genres. 
Professor Myers is a working critic and he responds to me that Updike laid out some sort of scientific process for judging books. That by leveling the field one can critique each book based on its own merit. He cautioned me to read everything with a sharp eye and realize that there is a void between the author, the work and the critic. Much like Bernie Taupin and Elton John in their early days together as singer and songwriter the author and critic don't converse when they are working. Updike is better than most at bridging the gap by considering the author's point of view and writing to educate the audience and not be overly harsh to the original writer. I enjoyed Picked Up Pieces and look forward to the end of our course with Due Considerations in a couple of weeks.