If you were searching for a pastime that was the opposite of reading, you might well hit on sport. Burying your nose in a book is a primarily sedentary and intellectual activity (although proponents of the bizarre discipline that is extreme reading might disagree); sport is of course hugely energetic and physical (although some of us might argue that golf, boules and an arthritic middle-aged kick-about buck that trend too). The former is an insular and private experience; the latter an extroverted and communal event.
However, this very dichotomy is probably the reason why sports and fiction make such a successful partnership. Confined to their desks for most of the day, it is no surprise that writers fetishise a world of sweat and sociability. Bringing such a tribal activity to life on the lonely page is an intriguing challenge, and sport is in itself a language with a rich seam of jargon to mine. It is also a cultural looking glass, through which issues of class, race, sex, violence and transcendence can be refracted and explored. And however deep the metaphor becomes, the everyman accessibility of sport allows a novel to retain an aura of unpretentious authenticity.
Of course, for all the fancy philosophising, a good chunk of sport fiction is driven by publishers’ bottom lines. The flawed reading/sports division also translates into a classic gender cliché: she snuggles on the sofa with a novel while he plays ball in the park; she talks Austen at the book club while he talks Arsenal down the pub. In the most basic marketing terms, adding a spot of muscle to your novel can help pull in the guys, and many canny authors combine sporting subjects with ‘masculine’ adrenalin-pumped genres such as crime and mystery.
The last four novels in Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, fast-paced thrillers starring a basketball pro turned sports agent, all debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. John Grisham has successfully combined his high-stakes taut plotting with American football inBleachers and Playing for Pizza. Ex-jockey Dick Francis’s racing crime capers have been bestsellers for four decades. And Nick Hornby’s autobiographical novel Fever Pitch helped ease a generation of non-fiction lads into the joys of well-written, stealthily meaningful bloke-lit.
But sport-saturated fiction is as likely to crop up on an awards shortlist as an airport paperback carousel. Highbrow state-of-the-nation epics have a notable tendency to pin eight hundred pages of philosophy on the whack of a ball.