This is the final part of John Tunbull's interview for thesimplestgame, but I am absolutely positive that this will not be the last time his words will appear on this site. John Turnbull, editor of the glorious collection of football writing The Global Game, is the guru of football writing. I've just read one of his papers about football journalism and I've got to tell you, the guy really knows his gear. But I'll get to that in the next couple of weeks. The book is a remarkable piece of work. I'll be reviewing it soon too. These are the rest of John's answers...
thesimplestgame: What about football appeals to you as a writer and reader?
John Turnbull: Football contains the world. I cannot imagine an aspect of human experience – faith, fellowship, politics, language, law, love, resistance – that could not be addressed by considering the football ground. It is probably the most subtext-heavy sport on the planet. For a writer with interests in theology and international affairs and cross-cultural study and language, football offers all these ingredients.
My interest in football as a reader really began with Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow – a beautiful title, especially in the original Spanish, El fútbol a sol y sombra. After referring to the “astonishing void” in academic histories of the region, Galeano demonstrates how football bears much in Latin American society and culture. His is not a rhapsodic, nostalgic treatment. He is critical of the sport as spectacle that, in the modern day, is “organized not for play but rather to impede it.” That the best football writing might accommodate such perspectives of melancholy and loss – the game’s shadow side – is a strength.
tsg:There seems to be a general belief that men prefer reading non-fiction over fiction – it’s been put forward as one of the reasons for the dearth of football fiction. Another theory is that footballers are better at expressing themselves with a ball than a pen. Why do you think there is so little fiction about a sport that is so popular?
JT: The problem with the statement is the assumption that only men would be interested in football fiction. I suppose it is an explainable bias. Decisions about football books in English, to a large extent, come from publishing houses and agents in London. And as Steven Wells says, “From the British perspective, football is a measure of masculinity. It’s actually more important than possessing a penis.” Therefore, from commissioning editors lacking in imagination, with pounds sterling and the euro as the only frames of reference, we get fed a diet of hooligan memoirs (aka “hoolie porn”) and ghosted biography.
There might be some parallel in fiction to Galeano’s observation concerning the absence of sport from academic histories. Football exists in a nether region between intellect and emotion, aesthetic and kitsch. On the one hand, many writers and intellectuals see the game as too common to inspire higher sentiments; at the same time, our stereotypical image of sports fans is that they do not respond to appeals to the mind and reason. Yet clubs in the UK such as Tottenham, Barnsley and Brighton and Hove Albion have or have had poets in residence. Why not novelists in residence? Or philosophers in residence?
Jorge Valdano alone would disprove the thesis that footballers are incapable of narrating their own experience. I imagine that talented writers are no more or less common among footballers than in the rest of the population. It is open to question whether non-English-speaking footballers receive better educations or are more broad-minded than counterparts in the UK, USA, Australia and so on. From Australia, for example, the late Johnny Warren has written eloquently on football’s capacity to transcend cultural and ethnic divides.
But Alexei Smertin, a Russian player with experience at Chelsea, Portsmouth and Charlton, mentions to Marc Bennetts in Football Dynamo the challenges of learning English when “surrounded by guys whose vocabulary is limited to ‘fuck,’ and who make mistakes with grammatical tenses. ... I found it quite hard to communicate with English people in a non-football environment.” Bennetts has also quizzed Russian footballers on their favorite books. One popular selection is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Smertin also likes Nabokov and Balzac.
tsg: Do you think there is a defined market for football literature, particularly fiction?
JT: The answer depends on the market that one considers. Certainly one would have better success pitching a football novel in Barcelona than New York. Having said that, I am aware of several novels in the United States on the “soccer mom” theme – bodice rippers about women whose overcharged libidos stray far from the touchlines.
John Turnbull's interview has been something of an enlightenment. An education in football writing. thesimplestgame is very, very grateful. We would like to thank John for his help, his time, his generosity and his patience. Thanks John.
You can have a look at excerts from John, Thom and Alon's book or even buy it at The Global Game The site really is worth a look.