Geoff Dyer takes on the role of ‘Head Groundsman’

By Shayne Benowitz

The 38th annual Key West Literary Seminar kicked off Thursday evening with the John Hersey Memorial Address delivered by Geoff Dyer in a talk entitled “Introductory Report from the Head Groundsman.” He began with a zoomed out image of the planet, asking the audience to imagine a Martian landing on earth, first on an idyllic meadow and then within the confines of a soccer stadium or a tennis court. He asked the audience to think of him as the head groundsman, marking the lines along the field or the court, as his talk spanned the history of sports, games and fandom through the lens of literature.

Throughout his talk, he referenced a wide range of authors from Eve Babitz to Ian McEwin, Martin Amis, Edith Wharton and Dostoevsky as he led the audience on a cultural journey touching on a wide range of sports including squash, mountaineering, surfing, golf, track and field and tennis, saying at one point that the invention of the ball was as revolutionary as the invention of the wheel.

With regards to the meaningfulness of sports, he recalled that Albert Camus once said that everything he learned about morality and obligation, he learned from football, to which Werner Herzog later said simply, “football is football.”

The evening was punctuated by aphorisms, recalling Billy Collins’ problem with being a poet: What do you do with the other 23 hours of the day? To which Dyer suggested, watch sports. In talking about Don DeLillo’s writing about baseball, he likened the sport to café society because nothing happens.

In talking about authors who are drawn to sports writing and journalism—Richard Ford, Tom Wolf, Norman Mailer—Dyer said, their pressing question was what’s going on inside an athlete’s head?

To introduce the idea that boxing is the sport most written about, he said that a group of writers together in a room are a lot like boxers who haven’t fought each other yet. He named the great biographies on Muhammad Ali by David Remnick, Sonny Liston by Nick Tosches and Mike Tyson’s autobiography, as well as Joyce Carol Oates booklength essay On Boxing and Ernest Hemingway’s short stories The Battler and The Undefeated.

He concluded his talk with the idea of sportsmanship as the true glory of athletics and that the handshake c,onceding a loss at the end of a game, is a gesture that shifts the players and the fans back out into the world from the stadium where nothing is more important than the game.

Shayne Benowitz is a journalist and travel writer. She’s currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York.

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