Beware the autobiography

Each year dozens of footballers retire, some with glory, others without.  The glorious get to write a book.  Retirement isn’t official until the autobiography is released.

Expect Jude Bolton to write a book about his career.  As a dual premiership player, he deserves it.  Dean Brogan and Chad Cornes might write one too.  Max Bailey could use his 43-game career, which included a premiership, as the basis for a book.

Sport fans love to read.  A Bolton book would be interesting, but beware the autobiography, because most are disappointing.  A career is usually reduced, in simplistic prose, to 250 pages, and that may include 20 pages of photographs and statistics.

Each autobiography follows a formula; childhood, childhood sport, the draft followed by career highlights, disappointment and achievement.  Most are without depth, words aimed at teenagers.

Major incidents are glossed over.

The sacking of a coach might be reduced to a few paragraphs.  A knee reconstruction might be allocated a page.  Coaches, doctors and teammates will be discussed on a shallow level.

To write an autobiography, a player records answers to obvious questions, which might take three or four hours.  The ghost writer transcribes the interview or pays someone to do it.

The ghost writer edits the transcript to make it readable.  He might do a few hours of research to make sure the statistics are right.

Books can be finished in a couple of months and be on the shelves for Christmas, at $35.

I rarely pay full price for an autobiography.  I stalk second hand stores, discount stores and the Lifeline bookfest.  I’ve probably accrued about a 500 sport books in the past twenty years.  Some are in bookcases, others in cupboards.  Most are in boxes.

If a buy a book I read it.  Too many times I’ve been disappointed.  It doesn’t stop me buying or reading though, because I love sport.  I wish more journalists and authors would write biographies, but I understand why they don’t.

Back in 2003, QUT’s Professor of Journalism, Lee Duffield suggested I forget about writing a biography.

‘From what I’ve seen, anyone who writes a book about a sportsman won’t do it again,’ Duffield said.  ‘It is too much work, never a good experience.’

It is why journalists tend to ghost autobiographies instead of writing biographies.  It’s a shame, because the best sport books are written by writers.

The prose is better, and while they follow the formula, the writer is free from constraints imposed by the subject, the clubs or controlling bodies.  Definitive incidents are not glossed over, they’re researched and analysed, gritty accounts of flaws and brilliance.

The writer, in describing athletic triumph and tragedy, will view incidents on video and analyse key moments.  The writer will talk to opponents, administrators and team-mates.  Their recollection builds intensity.

Mostly, the difference between an autobiography and a biography is stark, because the subject doesn’t get the chance to wrestle with pride.  He doesn’t get to look back like the writer does.  If the writer works with complete independence, the results can be remarkable.

Last year I read Diesel by Greg Williams and Other Side of the Medal by Len Thompson.  Diesel took two days to read, Thompson’s book three days.  Both were written for twelve-year-olds, without quotes or different voices to provide complexity.

Both books cost me a couple of bucks and I still feel ripped off, not because of the cost, but the woeful narrative.  It shouldn’t take two days to read about Williams or Thompson.  They deserve more than that.  Instead, their injuries, grand finals, Brownlow medals and controversy were belittled.

Their books also contained dreadful errors.  Thompson, who played in the 1977 grand finals, wrote about the disappointment of losing the replay by 19 points.  North Melbourne won by 27 points.

Williams, in discussing the VFL’s expansion, wrote about Brisbane joining the competition in 1989, when they joined in 1987.

Errors ruin writing, and I know that from dreadful experience.

The criticism, given I write for a living, might seem biased, and while I can recognise weak prose, there’s more to it.  I love the drama of sport.  When that drama is recollected, I want more than a recorded ramble transcribed into words aimed at a teenager.

There’s no superiority attached to the critique either.  Just because I write for a living doesn’t make my desire different to any sport fan.

You don’t need to be a writer to know a book is poor.

The worst autobiography I read was written by former Australian cricketer Dean Jones.  Called One Day Magic, it provided as much depth and memorable moments as a washed out one-day game.

Former Carlton champ Stephan Kernahan’s book, Sticks, is equally bad.  I leant it to a Blues fan called Stevo.  He read three chapters and gave it back.

Mark Riccuito’s book was so bad I put it in a box and refused to lend it to anyone.

About ten years ago I paid three bucks for Edward Griffiths’ biography about Kepler Wessells, the former Australian and South African cricketer.  Up until then, it was the best sport biography I read, immaculate detail about an intense cricketer.  I’ve never seen it before or since in a second hand store.

There is a reason why.

Three years ago I paid $35 for Golden Boy, the unauthorised biography of Kim Hughes written by Christian Ryan.  The book is a magnificent homage to a controversial sportsman who couldn’t handle responsibility.

It is the best book about Australian cricket I’ve read.  When it was released in 2009 the asking price was $35.  I let it go for a year, finally buying it at Cairns airport for $35.  Almost three years later, the book was still on sale across the country for $35.

It had never been discounted.  There is a reason why.

Gary Linnell has written two books about the AFL, once called Footy LTD, another called Playing God, the rise and fall of Gary Ablett.

Both are excellent, investigative books into the biggest expansion in VFL/AFL history and a flawed star of the game.  Linnell recreated events meticulously, putting the reader in the boardrooms, on the field and on the street as Ablett assaulted a man.

When Gideon Haigh wrote The Cricket War, about Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, it was rejected by eleven publishers.

Haigh’s book is now considered a classic.  I have three copies.  I have bought copies for mates.  Amazing it could be rejected eleven times.

I do the same with a book called The Coach, written by John Power.  A few years ago, I was reading it on a train in Brisbane.  A bloke interrupted me and asked where I got it from.

‘A second hand store,’ I said.  ‘I already had three copies but I bought it again.’

The bloke asked if he could buy it from me.

He couldn’t, no matter how many copies I had.

I love books about boxing.  Boxers are the most interesting athletes in sport, willing to give more than any other to attain glory.  The writers intellectualise the sport, which doesn’t make any sense, but boxing isn’t romanticised.

The guttural nature of promotion and corruption isn’t glamorised.  A good writer can put the reader in the ring to feel the punches, the low blows, the warmth as blood trickles from a cut.

A good writer can knock out the reader, no matter the sport.  The best sport books, as I’ve mentioned, are those written by writers.  They do it for money, obviously, but they write beyond that, because their talent is so damn compelling.

When a sportsman writes his own book, though his story may be compelling, it’s a quick turn-around money grab.

This critique may be harsh, and there is much to be learned from autobiographies, but think of the books you’ve read about sportspeople.

Check your bookshelves and find those you’ve read more than once.  Check out the books your mates wanted to read or flick through over beers and pool.

The best, no doubt, belong to writers.  It’s why their books don’t turn up too often in second hand stores.  People don’t want to get rid of them.  It’s why Golden Boy wasn’t discounted for three years.

Too often autobiographies don’t challenge the intellect.  They’re written like a news story, to be read and quickly forgotten.  They end up at Lifeline stores a year later for three bucks.

I have found dozens of autographed autobiographies in second hand stores.  I can’t understand why anyone gets rid of an autographed book, no matter how bad it is.

If you want to buy a book about sport, look at the author.  If it is written by the athlete, wait a year.  You will find it on sale, reduced from $35 down to $6.  You might find it in a second hand store in two years for two bucks.

If it’s written by a writer, you’ll need to pay more or wait longer.

My ten best biographies:

  • The Coach, by John Power
  • Footy LTD, by Gary Linnell
  • Playing God, the rise and fall of Gary Ablett, by Gary Linnel
  • Golden Boy, by Chris Ryan
  • The cricket war, by Gideon Haig
  • The Last Great Fight, the extraordinary tale of two men and how one fight changed their lives, by Joe Layden
  • A Savage Business – the comeback and comedown of Mike Tyson, by Phil Hoffman
  • Kepler, the biography, by Edward Griffiths
  • The life of Senna, by Tom Rubython
  • Dark Trade, lost in boxing, by Don McRae

 

 

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. I agree with the general thrust of your argument Matt. It is why current or recently retired sportsmen make for such useless commentators. Think Richo and the Channel 9 cricket sycophancy crew. They want to still be mates more than offer insight.
    Best sporting (or almost any category) book I’ve read in recent times was the inimitable Haigh’s “On Warne”. An admiring but not uncritical story of the last 20 years of modern cricket, through the prism of Warne. Haigh’s prose and insight borrowed extensively from Warne’s own views, but had the perspective and awareness that a naïve genius like Warne sometimes lacks.
    I don’t generally read autobiographies for the reasons Matt outlines, but I broke my rule for Ted Hopkins “The Stats Revolution”. I thought his intellect would outweigh the narrow perspective, but he was too close to his topic to tell an interesting story. Like many statisticians, Ted was more interested in completeness than insight. It is a book of record, and many of the personal and business incidents tell us little other than they happened. The prose is wooden, but there was a great story there in the hands of skilled writer who winnowed the chaff and drew out the interesting.
    I love short stories and good journalism, so I treasured Peter Roebuck’s collected columns. His autobiography “Sometimes I forgot to laugh” may well have been self serving in getting stuck into Botham and Viv, and his explanations for caning young men. Still he wrote like an angel, and he did not avoid the difficult issues.
    My most prized sports books are the collected columns of the great American Sports Writers of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s – Grantland Rice and Red Smith (“Strawberries in the Wintertime” on baseball – who could resist a title like that).
    Thanks for your thoughtful piece Matt. One pedantic point – some of the books you list are histories of a period, not biographies of a person. Like Bradman you’ll have to make do with a 99.9 rating.

  2. Luke Reynolds says:

    Interesting topic Matt. Agree that biographies written by journos are usually better than autobiographies written by sportsmen. A couple of exceptions in my collection include ‘The Power of Passion’ by Justin Langer, which is an inspiring book as I have read, and ‘All I can be’ by Nathan Buckley, which brilliantly uses the thoughts of his peers alongside his own memoirs. The best autobiography I have ever read is ‘Undercover Prop’ by Dan Crowley, detailing his career as a Wallaby and Queensland Red rugby player while working as an undercover cop. Can’t recommend it enough. Totally agree with Peter’s thoughts on Gideon Haigh’s ‘On Warne’, as good a biography as I have read.
    Some of my other favourites are:
    ‘Mystery Spinner, The Story of Jack Iverson’ by Gideon Haigh
    ‘Clarrie Grimmett’ by Ashley Mallett
    ‘Black Caviar’ by Gerard Whateley
    ‘Steve Waugh’ by Peter Fitzsimons
    ‘Jock, The Story of Jock McHale’ by Glenn McFarlane

  3. mickey randall says:

    Agree with you Matt.

    Shane Warne-My Autobiography says it all.

    The Fight by Norman Mailer is gripping and astonishing even to someone like me who has a limited appreciation of boxing. Grace, beauty, different kinds of death are all there.

    Don DeLillo’s Underworld and its opening section- Pafko at the Wall- with its extraordinary re-imagining of the final 1951 World Series baseball game best demonstrates the narrative, fun and illuminating power of sport for me. Not just the best visionary sports writing, but the best writing I’ve enjoyed.

  4. Mark greenwood says:

    Thanks for this article. The best two sport books that I have read are:
    Golden Boys – Cameron stauth (purchased from melbourne sport books for 6 bucks) a creative look at each member of the dream team.
    Secondly, a very underrated look at the development of fast bowling in the 1980’s called ‘Letting Rip,’ by Simon wilde. The opening chapter has the reader opening the batting with boycott against holding, Marshall, garner and Roberts. The closing chapter has the reader batting against wasim and waqar and the reverse swinging old ball.

    Both books are charismatic and creatively written.

  5. Great list, Matt… and credit to you for reading some of those autobiographies that I’d be inclined leave on the shelf. I’ve been tempted to read ‘Golden Boy’, your recommendation just got it over the edge.

    For the minutes, my favourite sports reads (in no particular order) are:
    MP: The Life Of Michael Peterson: Sean Doherty
    A Sense of Who You Are: John McPhee
    King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero: David Remnick / The Fight: Norman Mailer
    Red and Me: Bill Russell
    Paper Lion: George Plimpton

  6. Stephen Cooke says:

    Saw a paperback edition of Golden Boy in the Numurkah op shop the other day for $4. Might be worth the trip, Matt.

    I’ve re-read both Linnell’s books, highly recommended. Matt Price’s book on the Dockers also very entertaining.

  7. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Thought-provoking stuff Iron Mike. Playing God is such a poignant book and over the last 10 years it has proved to be somewhat prophetic in terms of how celebrity has taken over sport and what happens to the stars. I reviewed Playing God for this site back in 2010: http://www.footyalmanac.com.au/book-review-all-praise-to-exploration-of-ablett-enigma/

    I don’t really like Rugby League because I didn’t grow up with it and therefore never understood its cultural significance. Reading Harmsy’s The Pearl on Steve Renouf was a huge eye-opener. Harmsy’s background research into Renouf’s family and the socio-cultural-historical back drop of why this is a story worth being told is presented with rare clarity and insight.
    All I can Be by Bucks is honest and quite revealing, especially about his relationship with his father. He doesn’t pull many punches, particularly on himself. Refreshing read.
    Thanks for the post mate, excellent topic for discussion.

  8. Peter, I like your assessment of autobiographies as documents of record rather than of insight. For mine, there are a few standout books not mentioned so far (see if you can guess my own biases here). If I were to look for a pattern, I’d say books with a narrower focus — an incident, a season or two — are more likely to be successful than broad ones.

    The Coach – John Power. Not just an iconic footy book but a great sports book full stop, and the first one I read over and over. (OK, so Matt already listed this one, but it’s too good not to mention again).

    Ball Four – Jim Bouton. Equal parts gossipy, scandalous, intelligent and wistful. A burnt out ex-Yankee hard throwing pitcher makes a comeback as an ageing knuckleballer bouncing around expansion teams in the late ’60s. Get one of the editions with the 10/20/30-year epilogues.

    Any of Roger Angell’s collections, but particularly The Summer Game. The New Yorker’s literary critic writes about baseball in the ’60s. Sometimes self-consciously over-literate, but always beautifully written, from the perspective of a fan rather than insider.

    The Game – Ken Dryden. The goalie for some great Montreal Canadiens teams writes an insider’s account of the 1978-79 seasons. Still generally regarded as the best hockey book ever.

    Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby. Much as I can take or leave soccer most of the time, it’s a fine insight into the life of a fan.

    Too many more to mention: Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, Bill Veeck’s autobiography Veeck As In Wreck, the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and as a kid I lost countless hours poring over CMJ’s Who’s Who of Test Cricket.

  9. I choose to buck the trend, slightly. Just note, autobiographies and biographies aren’t my faves.
    Bart My Life by the man himself; I loved it, could read it again.
    Occy: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Mark Occhilupo by Mark and Tim Baker; A Barry Crocker, I’ve been at it for 4 years, very hard work but I’m determined to get some value from it.

  10. Sean Gorman says:

    Nice Thread Iron.
    As someone who was a rizla away from getting the A Goodes autobio gig earlier this year I immersed myself in the ‘ghosting process’ which is a little more involved than you allude to IM. But I take your point.

    Open the auto of Andre Agassi is superb. JR Moehringer did a great job. And Malcolm Knox did a great job on Ben Cousins dysfunctional life. Golden Boy is great but if I was on a desert island it would be Rose Boys by Peter Rose. Not a sports book perse but has such a strong sport meta text it is hard not to read it from any other pov imo.

    Worst: Nathan Browns book – his dear mum did it apparently – I think this is the epitome of the quick n nasty you speak of.

  11. I agree with Randall and Litza. Mailer’s The Fight in his typically overblown only-Norman-can-see-this wisdom is wonderful, and he’s one of the few writers who can slow boxing down enough to vivisect a fight in progress. Pafko at The Wall is a slo-mo monument to a sporting moment. Remnick’s book on Ali is great. And Hunter Thompson at the Kentucky Derby (while it may not be sport) is pretty damned good.
    ajc

  12. And let’s not forget whatever Les Carlyon writes about horses.
    ajc

  13. Sean G – on the money with Rose Boys, kind of book that stays with you forever.

    The Coach is a ripper, I also rate Football Ltd highly. And Bucks bucks the trend with his quality biography. Anything by Gideon is worth a look, I enjoyed Mystery Spinner too Luke.

    Currently reading David Walsh’s book on the pursuit of Lance Armstrong. A fascinating read thus far.

    Will be interesting to see who spits out the first tome on the Essendope saga. I reckon there must be one sitting there waiting for the last chapter to be writtten.

  14. I think you’re right about autobiographies. Mostly following a very familiar formula, self serving and disappointing. One of the better ones I believe is Wayne Carey’s, “The Truth Hurts”. Possibly laden with bullshit but a very revealing and entertaining story nonetheless. At the other end of the scale is Fevs book, which is an absolute stinker.

    “Playing God” is probably one of the best books I have read, sport or otherwise. Also Martin Flanagan’s “Southern Sky, Western Oval” and “1970” are both fantastic reads, from probably my favourite sports writer ever.

  15. ajc – yes to Les Carlyon, and Hunter S Thomson on the Kentucky Derby is required reading – the title alone is brilliant (‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved’).

    David Foster Wallace has written some great stuff on tennis — all of it more accessible than Infinite Jest.

    Sean G – I’d include Brotherboys in the canon of great Australian football writing.

  16. Sean Gorman says:

    Litza – the fiddy is in the mail. ;-)

  17. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Great Topic Mike and in general I agree with your sentiments the best sports books ate ones with emotion such as The Rose Boys totally agree Sean a brilliant.book
    Jason McArtney re Bali a gutsy and emotional book other Footy books I enjoy are Kevin Sheedy and yep John Powers The Coach re Cricket Justin Langer Mike Hussey and
    Steve Waugh all reveal some or there human traits and are motivational
    Re Worst Books I bought a Michael Slater book for $ 2 at a clearance sale and big tip
    I got ripped off this shocker is a cure for Insomia and agree again Sean Nathan Browns is diabolical which is even more disappointing in that he is 1 of the better analysts on radio of Footy

  18. Yes, Foster Wallace on tennis. The stuff about Federer and How Tracey Austin Broke My Heart.

  19. Golden Boy is outstanding.
    The Damned United is extraordinary.

    I’ve liked most of Gideon’s – not so big on Cricket Wars.
    A massively overrated one is Flanagan’s on Footscray – nothing happened but he wrote it anyway.

    Fever Pitch, of course, is essential reading.

  20. Skip of Skipton says:

    I’m presently reading ‘A Season With Verona’ by Tim Parks, and it’s excellent.

    Ex-pat Englishman and long time Verona resident follows Hellas Verona through every game, home and away, of the 2000/01 Serie A season. A great warts and all insight of Italian culture, history, politics, regional differences and rivalries…and football.

  21. Hi all,
    Good to see so many boxing fans are on footy almanac…
    I am busy checking out the selections you all made that I do not own.
    Will try to get Letting Rip by Simon Wilde. I have his book about Warne, a great read.
    Sean, I have a copy of Brother Boys in my bookcase, and though I have read it just once, the fact it isn’t in a box means I will read it again.
    Norman Mailer’s The Fight is a great book too, I could go on…
    Not sure how many of you own Merv – the full story. It’s great too, and written by Patrick Keane, media manager of the AFL.
    It is clear we all agree that good writing is memorable.
    As writers, we are compelled to keep it that way.
    Now if someone would just give me a call about ghosting a book…

  22. DBalassone says:

    Great thread Matt. A couple of random thoughts to add:
    “On Warne” is great for all the reasons listed above, but also for the humour. I recall Haigh expressing amazement at how S.Waugh could produce a fat autobiography, after already publishing about 20 captains diaries.
    I used to own about 150-200 footy & cricket books but went through a minimalist period in 2001 and sold them all to the great Santo Caruso at Melbourne Sports Books – Santo is a Melbourne Institution by the way. Here’s a few books that spring to mind.
    “Whispering Death” by Michael Holding, computer programmer/fast bowler
    “Robbie” by Robert Flower which I got from the great man himself at his Forest Hill sports store. Contains the funniest anecdote I’ve ever read about a sledge Flower received from Athas Hrysoulakis
    “Ten Turbulent Years”, released in ’87 where Ian Chappell says Merv Hughes should never play for Australia again. He’d played one test for 1/123 at that point.
    “Henry” by Geoff Lawson. Always listen when Lawson talks about the game. Hates beer.
    Of more recent years, the Bucks book is great for the father/son stuff Phil mentions above, but also for the way Bucks describes his pre-SAFL days where he couldn’t even get a game for his school in Sunbury in year 11/12 to working his absolute arse off to rise through the Port ranks in SA. His also grew 20 cm as an 18 year old, which helped.
    Currently reading “The Stats Revolution” by Teddy Hopkins, fascinating stuff. Footballer/poet/small business owner/publisher/revolutionary statistician, but most of all entrepreneurial thinker.

  23. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Matt in Merv he mentions the best sledge he copped when bowling at Ad Oval after taking 13 wickets in Perth he was in his 3rd test since when I yelled out how many wickets since Perth Merv ? Which he responded with the 2 finger salute since he had taken 1 I replied not only you cant bowl you can’t count
    Glad that Merv proved me so wrong and have had a chat and laugh about it since
    Love this Topic and Pat Farmer the Ultra Marathon runner is a great read also

  24. Malby Dangles says:

    Good topic. I’ve read a bunch of the ones that Matt and others have listed.
    I absolutely loved Footy LTD. I think there’s a movie or documentary in that book…there’s so many fascinating stories there. Playing God, Golden Boy, and Mystery Spinner are terrific and cautionary (and pretty depressing) tales.
    Some autobiographies that are interesting (not necessarily up to the standards of the ones mentioned above are)

    John Elliott – My Sporting Life. A crappy book but good to read to get an insight into Carlton and the sporting world where he was once a mover and shaker. A good one to read in relation to the goings on in Footy LTD.
    Harry – Justin Madden. Enjoyable yarns by one of the great goofy footy players.
    Have a Nice Day: a tale of blood and sweatsocks AND Foley is Good – Mick Foley. Highly entertaining blow by blow accounts of professional wrestling superstar Mick Foley (Aka Mankind, Cactus Jack, Dude Love).

    Some good books about sports in general are:
    Up where Cazaly? – Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner – one of the first attempts at a history of Australian Rules football looking at the various leagues
    Football Life – Clinton Walker – half Fever Pitch, half Up Where Cazaly. A good read.
    Night Games – Anna Krien. Disturbing but vital.

    And for pure entertainment and storytelling you can’t go past the Wild Men of Football series by Brian Hansen and Jack Dyer.

  25. Going back to the 70’s my first two biographies/autobiographies were Stacky’s , “Not just for openers’, and Ashley Mallet’s ‘Rowdy’. For a young fella they were interesting reading..

    Glen!

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