‘Art of Fielding’ author makes Aspen appearance
August 13, 2012
ASPEN – Among the feedback that Chad Harbach has received for his first novel, “The Art of Fielding,” published last year, was that nothing happens in the book. In fact, the book, 512 pages long, features several romantic relationships, a couple of scandals, the dramatic downward spiraling of various lives, one death and a few close calls. So it’s with a wry tone that Harbach says, “Yeah, I guess for people who don’t read many books, nothing happens. No one gets murdered.”
“The Art of Fielding” also features a load of baseball games, baseball practices and the action behind the scenes of a baseball team from a small, Midwestern college, the Westish Harpooners. Baseball, too, is often the target of the criticism that nothing happens. As Homer Simpson observed while watching a game for the first time without the aid of a beer buzz, “I never realized how boring this game is.”
Harbach believes that the relative abundance of writing about baseball has to do with the pace of the sport.
“It’s a very pastoral game, which is easier for a writer to deal with,” the 36-year-old Harbach said Sunday morning by the pool behind the Aspen Square Hotel. “You’re describing a game where there’s ample time to reflect and muse. The pace allows for this contemplation. Writing about a basketball game is a very different thing.”
“The Art of Fielding” is not an attempt to capture the slowness of baseball. But Harbach’s first inspiration was connected to the game’s meditative pace. Around the time that Harbach began conceiving his book, about a decade ago, a pitcher named Mark Wohlers lost control; for no apparent reason, he could no longer throw the ball over the plate. A few years later, Rick Ankiel, of the St. Louis Cardinals, suffered the same affliction.
“It was like, ‘Man, this is really in the air,'” said Harbach, a muscular, low-key, former high school baseball player. “Wouldn’t that be a great matter for fiction? Where every aspect of the game moves at that pace, and you have the opportunity to screw yourself with your own brain?”
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The affliction – often known as Steve Blass disease, for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who mysteriously lost his control in the early ’70s – is psychological in nature; it seems to stem from the fact that baseball affords its players too much time to think before they throw.
The first scene that Harbach wrote for “The Art of Fielding” was the beginning of the collapse of Henry Skrimshander. An unlikely baseball hero – a scrawny, mediocre batter with no high-level competition – Henry starts to emerge as a star fielder, a shortstop with phenomenal instincts and a deadly throwing arm. He is about to tie the college record set by his idol for games without an error when Henry loses it. He loses his ability to throw, and everything follows it down the drain – his friendships, his classwork, his moral compass, his prospects for a professional career.
Harbach, who will be interviewed onstage in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation event Monday at the Doerr-Hosier Center, isn’t certain that he has written a baseball book.
“I would think of it as a campus novel before I’d think of it as a baseball novel,” Harbach said.
And “The Art of Fielding” does capture college life, from dormitory existence to the building of academic careers to student-faculty relations.
But what really backs Harbach’s claim that he has not written a “baseball novel” is how the outcome of the games recedes to the background, overpowered by what happens to the characters. I can reveal what happens to the Westish Harpooners (they win the big game!) without much concern about spoiling the ending; I wouldn’t dare tell you the fate of Guert Affenlight, the Westish president who falls in love with Owen Dunne, a member of the baseball team.
“Probably the biggest question is, ‘Is that what you really care about when you are reading this book: Does the team win in the end?'” Harbach said. “If your plot boils down to ‘Do they win the big game or lose the big game?’ that’s like pornography. If the sex scene is the point, that’s pornography. If it’s about the team winning the big game, that’s sports porn.”
“The Art of Fielding,” which was named Amazon’s book of the year for 2011, emphasizes its characters. And not just one of its characters; Henry shares star billing with a handful of teammates, a faculty member and a female student who doesn’t care much about baseball. Stitching together five narratives was a major reason it took a decade or so to write “The Art of Fielding.”
“That was an awful lot to bite off,” Harbach said. “A more frequent or better strategy for a young writer is something more linear or more univocal. Maybe if I’d done that, it would have been three years, not 11. Not only because you have to get down different narrative styles, but it was a slow process of working out the architecture of the book: How do these five strands stay together as tightly as possible?”
Harbach says he isn’t much of a fan of sports novels and hasn’t read many of them. At the same time, he thinks there should be more of them – or at least novels that take advantage of the familiar setting, the emotions and the passion that accompany competitive sports.
“Sports, in so many ways, are an integral part of American economics and culture,” said Harbach, who is a founder of and contributor to the literary journal n + 1. “I think there are very few sports novels being written relative to their importance to society.”
Harbach is, though, a sports fan. A Wisconsin native, he maintains a strong allegiance to baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers and was in attendance last year when the Brewers – the best Brewers team in 30 years, Harbach said – lost their final game of the season, in the playoffs.
“I know a lot about sports,” he said. “Sometimes I wish I knew a lot less about sports, free up some space in my brain.”