Monday, January 21, 2008

Review: "God Save The Fan" by Will Leitch

Book Review: "God Save The Fan," by Will Leitch.
Publish Date: January 22, 2008 by Harper Collins.

We are living in a Golden Age of Fandom: Despite the Vick and Clemens scandals, Mitchell Reports and hundreds of other smaller scandals and disappointments that plague sports fans every day, we are living in a Golden Age of Fandom.

Why? Fans are empowered like never before, mainly through technological innovations brought on by the Internet Age: YouTube, Web 2.0 and, of course, blogging platforms, which have democratized opinion and revolutionized information-sharing:

As fast as a "traditional" sports-media outlet can break a story, everyone can have it, and the opinion from a well-informed fan -- passionate enough to blog essentially for free -- is often far more compelling or interesting than that which comes from the mainstream "expert."

It is appropriate that the ultimate manifesto of this new era of sports-fan empowerment comes from the creator and editor of Deadspin, which serves as the epicenter -- and id -- of 21st Century fandom.

Will Leitch's "God Save The Fan" – a must-have, must-read book for every sports fan – goes on sale tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 22) and entertainingly lays out both the provocative theory and compelling, often hilarious case studies behind this revolution – at the same time Will shatters the traditional sports-book mold.

Much like Deadspin itself, "God Save The Fan" is the "outsider's" perspective – but what does that say about the state of sports (and sports books) when the fan is the "outsider?" As much as anything, it is a reminder that the moment for a book like this is now. And as in his blog, Will captures and articulates the sentiments of the Everyfan.

The topics will be familiar to regular readers of Deadspin, but are accessible even to the fans who have never seen a blog before: The book is divided into four parts – Players, Owners, Media and Fans – each part with a dozen or so essays, all but one written entirely originally for the book. (The one that wasn't – a reprint of Will's famous/infamous Deadspin interview with John Rocker – contains hilarious new extra commentary.)

That is a key detail: Too many "books by bloggers" (and some notable mainstream sports media names) fail because they are merely rehashed blogs or reprinted columns, rather than using the topics covered on the blog as a jump-off point for a more complex and interesting conversation.

That's not to say "God Save The Fan" isn't a fun read: The format comes as close as any book I have ever read – certainly any sports book – to capturing the punchy ethos and conversational patter of blogging: Each essay is complex enough to dive into a topic in a more satisfying way than you get in a blog post, but short enough not to lose the attention of a reader. The four parts also are helpful organizing tools. That's not to say the book doesn’t have a touch of ultra-short-form blogginess: Each part's conclusion also includes a funny "Glossary" of notable names – and the Appendix includes a team-by-team guide to fandom, almost like a "Zagat's" for fans. (A very neat little conceit.)

But is it good for the bloggers? Books by bloggers in politics or entertainment have failed, mostly. Why will this book succeed? First, sports is the perfect topic: While it engenders all the passion of politics, it doesn't have nearly the bipolar rage. (Unless you're from Boston and New York.) Second, Will is an even better essayist than he is a blogger (see his ongoing contributions to the New York Times around big sports events).

Third, and most importantly, the sports-fan universe is, for the most part, one big community. Sure, we have our distinct faiths and our biases and our rivalries, but in the end, there is a sense of communal participation – particularly among those who write and consume sports blogs, from the bloggers to the readers to the commenters.

That will be the most interesting development to watch: Given Will and Deadspin's place at the center of gravity of the sports-blog universe – its reach, its influence, its driving support for the sports-blog ecosystem – it will be interesting to see how that translates into commercial traction.

Will bloggers promote it?
(If they've ever gotten a link from Deadspin, they should. If they haven't gotten a link from Deadspin – but have any aspirations to write a book themselves – they should. And if they care about this era of fan empowerment, of which they are a part, they should, too.) To use a sports metaphor, the biggest "X-factor" is the "Deadspin bump" -- will the blog's massive audience buy the book?

And will fans buy it? I think given the overall exceptional quality of the writing in the book itself – plus the "pro-Fans" statement that buying the book makes – it will be a hit, both with those familiar with Deadspin and the curious fans who hear about it through what is sure to be a massive publicity blitz surrounding the book's launch -- both inside and outside mainstream media. Will has many friends and admirers in the media – sports and otherwise.

I go back to the "You're With Me, Leather" meme that was probably the first truly "Deadspin moment" that signaled that the blog (and its author) were leading the changing relationship between sports fans and the media and athletes who they follow. It showed that sports fans want something they can consider under their control, that is open to everyone and that recognizes that sports is gloriously messy – something the mainstream myth-making machine doesn't always want to showcase. In a sports-media landscape built on catch-phrases and highlights, it was the fans' catchphrase and the fans' highlight.

Most of the first three sections will have readers either (a) nodding their head in agreement or (b) laughing their ass off, even if you have heard the stories before. To the point about head-nodding, this book jumps right up to the top of my list of "Damn, I Wish I Had Written That." More than anything, it feels like the ultimate sports book written by a fan for fans, a genre I not only find extremely appealing (when done right, like "God Save The Fan" or "High Fidelity") but I also think has remarkable potential. Self-servingly, the huge success of "God Save The Fan" would open the door for many blogger-turned-authors to finally get that book deal. Cough.

(It is worth mentioning that there is an anecdote Will recounts in the "Media" section that came from me, first told to a Varsity Letters Reading Series audience back in early 2007, a dramatic, satiric recounting of my national-TV debut on "Around the Horn." Later this week, I will try to adapt that reading into an expanded version of the story that is told in the book. Then I will wait patiently – as I always do – for the call to make my glorious return.)

That doesn't mean I don't take serious issue with some of the arguments that Will makes, particularly in the "Fans" section. Will has harsh things to say about "bandwagon fans," a topic that hits entirely too close to home.

(As I mentioned at the most recent Varsity Letters event, where I was the opening act for Will and Dave Zirin, my most memorable conversation of 2007 came when I asked Will if he thought I was less of a fan than someone who had rooted for a team their entire life, and he said, unhesitatingly, "Yes." For some of you, that might clinch book-purchase.)

And I completely disagree with Will's perspective against the idea of rooting for your team to "tank," a short essay that had me so miffed when I first read it that I actually had to explain my counter-theory to the poor soul sitting next to me on the plane.

Hopefully, you'll have a few disagreements of your own with Will's arguments to go with your head-nodding. (Skip Bayless may have more than a few.) That's the underlying point of the book: Have your own opinions, make them heard, be the fan that you want to be… not the one that the mainstream media and leagues want you to be.

There's a fantastic passage near the end of the book that I think sums it all up:

"The key to taking our games back rests not just with blogs – though it has been immeasurably exciting to watch talented people who never had a voice succeed just by starting up a free Blogspot site and showing off their stuff – but with recognizing our power. It's not a matter of organizing fan boycotts, or somehow pretending that you don't care about sports as much as you actually do. It's about embracing the matters you DO have control over; whether it's through blogs or through demanding results on obvious antifan decisions like baseball's infamous Extra Innings fiasco, or just remembering the basic tenet of fandom: You are the one who decides what's important… If we prove to those who have the power that we are smarter than they think we are, they will have no choice but to follow our orders. We're in charge. Let's make the rules."And with that, the manifesto concludes. But the reverberations from Deadspin, from sports blogs, from "God Save The Fan" and from an increasingly empowered fandom are just beginning.

"God Save The Fan" is an instant classic – to borrow ironically from one of ESPN's more legendary sports-cultural framings – and absolutely worth your time and money to buy, read, consider and enjoy. I don't want to say that the future of sports fandom depends on it – but the future of sports fandom certainly reveals itself within it.

(Actually, I think the book is so compelling, let's convene the first-ever Book Club to discuss it. Pick up the book online or in bookstores starting tomorrow – Tuesday, Jan. 22 – and let's tentatively plan to re-convene on Thursday, January 31 to talk about it here, via the Comments section, time of day to be announced, but probably lunchtime ET. I will put out some discussion questions in advance. I'll also see if Will can pop by to join in.)

* - Disclosures: (1) Will is a good friend, and I am both friendly with and a great admirer of his editor at Harper Collins, David Hirshey. My name is listed in the book's acknowledgements. (2) I contribute regularly to Deadspin and have been paid by Gawker Media. (3) I have a book proposal in this genre and could really REALLY use the success of Will's book to boost my own potential. (4) Will and I play in the same fantasy football and baseball leagues, and you always want to suck up to The Commish. (5) I wrote this. (So: Biased? Absolutely. But give me at least some credit that I simply wouldn't have written anything if I thought the book was lousy.)

-- D.S.


Big Daddy Drew said...

It can't be any comfort to Leitch that Shanoff was the one who said "Catwoman" would be a box office smash.

Luke Bell said...

Wow Dan, I thought you had already coined the Super Bowl as the Slurper Bowl.

marcomarco said...


All slurpy jokes aside, the review was well composed. I'm interested enough to plan on getting one today.

Mevs said...

Pretty excited for the book's release today. I'm headed to Barnes and Noble when I get off work today!

Nice review, DS.

Kurt said...

Sorry Dan, but you writing a book!? Your writing is best served in small doses. I think i'd rather shoot myself in the face than read hundreds of pages continuously of Dan Shanoff.

Eric (Extra P.) said...

shoot yourself in the FACE? Dan, is your book perchance about the rise of outrageous hyperbole in place of actual debate?