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We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports

We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports

by Noah Cohan
We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports

We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports

by Noah Cohan


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Sports fandom—often more than religious, political, or regional affiliation—determines how millions of Americans define themselves. In We Average Unbeautiful Watchers, Noah Cohan examines contemporary sports culture to show how mass-mediated athletics are in fact richly textured narrative entertainments rather than merely competitive displays. While it may seem that sports narratives are “written” by athletes and journalists, Cohan demonstrates that fans are not passive consumers but rather function as readers and writers who appropriate those narratives and generate their own stories in building their sense of identity. 

Critically reading stories of sports fans’ self-definition across genres, from the novel and the memoir to the film and the blog post, We Average Unbeautiful Watchers recovers sports games as sites where fan-authors theorize interpretation, historicity, and narrative itself. Fan stories demonstrate how unscripted sporting entertainments function as identity-building narratives—which, in turn, enhances our understanding of the way we incorporate a broad range of texts into our own life stories.

Building on the work of sports historians, theorists of fan behavior, and critics of American literature, Cohan shows that humanistic methods are urgently needed for developing nuanced critical conversations about athletics. Sports take shape as stories, and it is scholars in the humanities who can best identify how they do so—and why that matters for American culture more broadly.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496216175
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 07/01/2019
Series: Sports, Media, and Society
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 288
File size: 758 KB

About the Author

Noah Cohan is a lecturer in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Read an Excerpt


So We Fabricate

Baseball and the Unfriendly Confines of History

If baseball is a Narrative, it is like others — a work of imagination whose deeper structures and patterns of repetition force a tale, oft-told, to fresh and hitherto-unforeseen meaning.

— A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games

Understanding fans' reception of sporting events as based in storytelling practices has wide ramifications for our understanding of group identities and how they are formed. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the sport of baseball. Nicknamed the "national pastime," baseball is commonly considered to have metaphorical importance for the self-conception of Americans. In keeping with the expansionist iconography of Manifest Destiny, the sport is often written into a rural nationalist mythos of country pastures and simpler values — this despite the game's urban origins and long association with cheating, gambling, and other forms of iniquity. Such mythographic impulses contribute to baseball's pastoral representation in fiction. Whether nostalgic for or critical of that pastoral idyll, however, most writers of baseball fiction focus their imaginings on those who play the "national pastime" rather than those who watch. They do this not only because those players are the obvious protagonists of such a fantasy — running about in grassy fields playing a "child's game" — but also because their actions are measurable. Though baseball mythos may deny the industrialization that fostered the game, the cultural resonance of the game's gauzy idyll is nevertheless buttressed by the seemingly stark permanence of numbers on a page. Every ball, strike, hit, run, and out is clearly articulated in the statistical record. Befitting the rhetoric of "American functionalist meritocracy," literary critic Timothy Morris asserts, "baseball offers a spectacle of the pure work of statistical meritocracy." Baseball's American way of life is thus made empirical through the numerically recorded actions of baseball players. The narratives of the idyllic national pastime and its quantifiable player-heroes function both as vessels of America's self-aggrandizing nostalgia for a past never realized and as purportedly meritocratic indicators of the nation's continuing significance.

In "The Power of History," an essay published in the New York Times Book Review, novelist Don DeLillo ruminates on this understanding that baseball and American identity are historically linked. Explaining the origins of "Pafko at the Wall," a short story originally published in Harper's Magazine that would become the prologue to his 1997 opus, Underworld, DeLillo writes:

Front page of The New York Times. Oct. 4, 1951. A pair of mated headlines, top of the page. Same typeface, same size type. Each headline three columns wide, three lines deep.

Giants capture pennant — this was the dramatic substance of the first headline.

Soviets explode atomic bomb — this was the ominous threat of the second.

What did I see in this juxtaposition? Two kinds of conflict, certainly, but something else, maybe many things — I could not have said at the time. Mostly, though, the power of history. Two contemporaneous events, one of the most dramatic in baseball history and one of the most significant in Cold War history, become the doubly powerful subjects of DeLillo's fiction in "Pafko." Rather than focus on the players, however, in describing Bobby Thomson's famous pennant-winning home run in "Pafko" and in Underworld, DeLillo focuses on the fans. The historical record of on-field events — the players' actions and statistics — carry an air of definition, he asserts, yet "against the force of history, so powerful, visible and real, the novelist poses the idiosyncratic self." The idiosyncratic self is the fan, "sly, mazed, mercurial, scared half-crazy," who interprets the action in front of her in compliance with the communally recognized rules, but who is "also free and undivided," able to assign meaning to what she sees in accordance with her own set of beliefs, hopes, and more immediate stimuli. Rather than secondary to the official statistical record, DeLillo asserts that the fans' idiosyncratic meaning making is "the only thing that can match the enormous dimensions of social reality." Social reality, whether represented through Thomson's home run or the Soviets' mushroom cloud, functions as a dominating master narrative. But it cannot encompass or suppress humankind's infinite subjectivities. Against "history's flat, thin, tight and relentless designs," Underworld's fan narratives describe a baseball-mediated mode of identity formation that is personal, contingent, quotidian, and resolutely postmodern.

In realizing the potential of fiction to explore spaces within history through the fans, Underworld represents the postmodern genre Linda Hutcheon calls "historiographic metafiction." Distinct from historical fiction, Hutcheon's genre "works to situate itself within historical discourse without surrendering its autonomy as fiction." This autonomy is maintained by self-reflection; as Kathleen Fitzpatrick puts it, historiographic metafiction "self-consciously reminds us that, while events did take place in the real empirical past, we name and constitute those events as historical facts by selection and narrative positioning." DeLillo's newspaper discovery aligned Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" and the Russian nuclear test for him, but his reconstitution of the two events in Underworld does more than merely remind us that their meanings are neither static nor determined by their place "in the real empirical past." DeLillo also demonstrates that a self-reflective historicity is not the privilege of writers and intellectuals but is inherent in the way humans prioritize and assign personal meaning to the events happening around them. That he chooses to inhabit the minds of baseball fans in depicting this process of self-reflective historicity is not coincidental. The act of "nam[ing] and constitut[ing] events as historical facts by selection and narrative positioning" is the qualifying undertaking of sports spectatorship; in the stands the actions of the players are quantified and assigned collective value even as they are perpetually afforded a distinct value in each fan's personal narrative. The question "where were you when [this event] happened?" speaks to this phenomenon. Retrospectively positioning one's frame of mind in relation to a significant public event — sports-related or otherwise — is a common conversational trope. That these retrospective narratives are largely fictionalized is inevitable: as Paul John Eakin has demonstrated, the very act of recounting memories changes their shape and details.

But what if fans' personal fictions were not only the product but also the source of baseball's collective narrative? Robert Coover explores this question by pushing it to its limits in his critically acclaimed second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The eponymous Henry Waugh is not an ordinary fan: as the title indicates, he is the proprietor of the "Universal Baseball Association." Henry uses baseball statistics not only to understand the historical significance of the players in his league but also to romanticize them, writing narratives replete with green fields on sunny afternoons. The problem, or rather the spark, of the novel is that the baseball players Henry follows are unreal not only in the world of the reader but in that of the proprietor protagonist. His league is entirely imagined, the players' actions determined by the roll of three dice in Henry's living room. In a manner of speaking, rather that historiographic metafiction, Coover creates metafictional historiography: he demonstrates the necessity of self-consciously situating historical processes within the self, to bring the trappings of external order to personal uncertainty in a "world so impossibly complex, we cannot accumulate all the data needed for a complete, objective statement. ... So we fabricate; we invent constellations that permit an illusion of order to enable us to get from here to there." But by the end of Universal Baseball Association, Coover strips away the purported objectivity of the dice, the probabilistic mechanism that lends Henry's private sporting events their gravitas of external-determination and veneer of "reality." By pushing his account of sports experience from its conventional position as a recording of "real" events to the opposite end of the narrative spectrum, that of purely subjective fantasy, Coover demonstrates the dangers of removing the shared historicity that powers the formation of group identity surrounding sporting events.

In this chapter I examine Underworld's multiple spectators and Universal Baseball Association's solitary fan to demonstrate the way that sports fans signify "real" events on fictive narrative terms, and vice versa. In considering DeLillo's novel, I broaden Hutcheon's notion of historiographic metafiction beyond its ascription to postmodern literature and consider it as a personal practice in fan experience. I argue that DeLillo not only realizes the power of his narrative to give new meanings to history, but also shows us that fans realize the same power in considering how a baseball game will affect their own life narratives. As DeLillo's work resists a view of history as supreme or definitional, Coover's book presents a complementary lesson: namely, that while the individual's personal narration of shared experience is a salient and necessary aspect of fandom — and indeed of our larger lived experiences — it is dangerous if totalizing. The lush green fields of sports' utopian imaginary, in other words, can be just as reductive as the black and white text and images in an old history book.

Sport is "a medium for self-transformation," as former Major League Baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once put it, and "participant and spectator seek that agon, that competition with self to make the self over, to refashion or refigure or re-form the self into a perfect self, over and over again, in sport." The fan's self-transformational narrative process is never complete, just as history never ends. Henry Waugh remarks that "perfection wasn't a thing, a closed moment, a static fact, but process, yes, and the process was transformation." Between structure and volatility, group and individual, team and opponent, objective and subjective, history and fiction, the baseball fan experience is only viable, useful, and enticing insofar as the tensions that animate its transformative process never end. DeLillo and Coover suggest that like the renewing of the baseball season every spring, sports narratives are never static for fans. As they do so, the form of the novel allows DeLillo and Coover to transcend the conventional narrative limitations of their preferred primary text, baseball, and, like media fan writers of fanfiction, explore an expanded narrative landscape.

Underworld's Metafictioners

There are three distinct groups of fans in Underworld that together demonstrate how DeLillo challenges the mythologized, player-centric view of baseball narrative and provides powerful metafictional possibilities for our understanding of history. In order of their introduction to the reader, the groups are: outfield fans Cotter Martin and Bill Waterson; radio broadcaster Russ Hodges and his producer, Al; and public figures Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor, and J. Edgar Hoover. When they address the prologue, literary critics Of Underworld tend to focus on the last fan, Hoover, because he is the lone spectator able contemporaneously and consciously to connect the Giants' pennant-winning home run to the Russian nuclear test that would accompany it on the front page of the following day's New York Times. But to do so is to impress a narrative preferred by critics and theorists of postmodernity — the incomprehensibility of total annihilation at a time of American prosperity — onto the limitless alternate histories and personal narratives unfolding for each spectator. This is not to say that DeLillo avoids a Hoover-centric nuclear narrative, but that he understands that "the small anonymous corners of human experience" are not subsumed by "the magnetic force of public events and the people behind them." Knowledge of the mushroom cloud illuminates one fan's capacity to give meaning to the game, but that capacity should not obscure the richness and complexity of the other fans' self-narration. In this first section of the chapter, I will read the metafictions of each group of DeLillo's fans, ending with — but not prioritizing — the narratives of the FBI's "Big Name Fan."

In so doing, I claim for Underworld's prologue a significance beyond the false binary constructed by anti-sport critics who would cynically position DeLillo's baseball tableau as a mere rendering of the opiate of the masses and those who nostalgically view the game through an American pastoral lens. Both historically attuned interpretive tracks, I argue, are "flat, thin, tight and relentless designs," and the genuine power of "Pafko at the Wall" lies in its refusal to endorse either one. Like Bobby Thomson's home run ball, whose famous disappearance DeLillo reimagines, Underworld's rendering of fans as idiosyncratic readers of baseball narratives is both highly resonant and finally impossible to locate. The novel and its depiction of sports fans give interpersonal resonance to Hutcheon's literary framework, allowing us to better understand the narrative constructions of identity that occur both inside sporting arenas and outside them.


Befitting the massive scope of the novel, which spans five decades and a continent, Underworld opens by invoking a national readership: "He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful." The person who speaks for each "American" is Cotter Martin, a fourteen-year-old African American from Harlem willing to skip school and jump the turnstiles to watch his beloved Giants win a pennant. In addition to being the first character introduced, Cotter is particularly significant, some critics have argued, because he demonstrates both the obscuring capacity of popular entertainments and one of the principal injustices — racial intolerance — that they are commonly said to obscure. Underworld's prologue, asserts John Duvall, "examines baseball as an aesthetic ideology that participates in masking the hidden costs of America's Cold War victory and in erasing race and class difference." When Cotter "runs up a shadowed ramp and ... sees the great open horseshoe of the grandstand and that unfolding vision of the grass," as DeLillo describes, it "seems to mean he has stepped outside his life." But when he meets Bill Waterson, a white adult man with whom he is at first a friend and then a foe, such a seeming escape from grim reality is proven pure folly, Duvall argues. But such a pessimistic reading ignores the fact that DeLillo's association of "your voice," that of an anonymous, yet singular "American," with Cotter positions the reader as a distinct individual in a sweepingly broad context. It does not erase, but rather calls attention to the dichotomous fan modes Cotter Martin represents and occupies: first, that of the baseball fan so absorbed in the crowd that he feels he can leave his life behind; and second, that of an African American male whose life experience leads him to view the presence of a fellow black man — the peanut vendor — as an existential threat to his peaceful immersion in the mostly white spectators. In A Poetics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon's notion of historiographic metafiction "challenge[s] the humanist assumption of a unified self and an integrated consciousness by both installing coherent subjectivity and subverting it." Via Cotter, DeLillo forcefully assigns the reader a coherent subject with which to identify, but also emphasizes that such coherence is contingent on precarious group identifications.

Cotter's experiences are thus both every American's and no one else's. His story line does not represent American racial strife smoothed over by the masses' opiates, but rather the inevitable, interpersonal, and idiosyncratic interpenetration of the two. In the first few paragraphs of Underworld, DeLillo manages — to put it in the terms of historiographic metafiction —"to satisfy ... a desire for 'wordly' grounding while at the same time querying the very basis of the authority of that grounding." Through Cotter, DeLillo positions the reader at an event widely recognized as having historical significance, and then subverts the terms of that recognition by personalizing this reader's perspective. Cotter's narrative, like those of the other fans DeLillo personates, is about the Giants, Dodgers, and Bobby Thomson, to be sure, but it is firmly subjective in its orientation to those figures. After all, "it is fiction's role," DeLillo writes in "The Power of History," "to imagine deeply, to follow obscure urges into unreliable regions of experience — the child-memoried, existential and outside time. The novel is in the dream release, the suspension of reality that history needs to escape its own brutal confinements." A "complete" record of anything is impossible; only fiction can render the idiosyncratic experiences that go undocumented in the regimes of history.


Excerpted from "We Average Unbeautiful Watchers"
by .
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Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1. So We Fabricate: Baseball and the Unfriendly Confines of History
2. It was My Fate, My Destiny, My End, to Be a Fan: Football, Mental Illness, and the Autobiographical Novel
3. Race in the Basketball Memoir: Fan Identity and the Eros of “a Black Man’s Game”
4. It’s Been a Problem with Me and Women: Failed Masculinities in Depictions of Sports Fans on Film
5. Reimagined Communities: Web-Mediated Fandom and New Narrative Possibilities for Sport
Epilogue: Feminist Rewritings of Sports Fan Culture

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