Regular readers know that I am really into sports. I approach the NBA Draft like it’s a holy ritual and I could rattle off the stats of obscure Sacramento Kings players from the 1980s.
So you’d think that I’d leap at every sports book that came my way. But here’s the thing: sports novels for adults are tricky.
All you need to do to see what I mean by that is to look at which sports-related books have been successful. There are very, very few successful pure commercial sports novels. While I’m sure there are exceptions, the ones that tend to make it are [genre] + sports, whether that’s suspense plus sports (e.g. Harlan Coben’s novels featuring sports agent Myron Bolitar), literary fiction plus sports (e.g. SHOELESS JOE, the basis of the movie “Field of Dreams”), fantasy plus sports (e.g. SUMMERLAND), or John Grisham novel plus sports (e.g. BLEACHERS, PLAYING FOR PIZZA).
Why would this be?
I think what’s behind the difficulty of pure sports novels is that sports already provides so much human drama and narratives and storylines that a straightforward novel about sports is almost redundant. Sports provides a real life narrative experience that makes novels feel almost hollow in comparison.
Thus, in order to give readers something that they can’t already find just by following the NFL or NBA or curling, an author has to bring something new to the table, whether that’s by introducing suspense or fantasy or literary merit or a real-life behind the scenes look. I also think this is why children’s sports novels are successful – they tend to feature kids as protagonists, which offers something different than the real sports world.
So if you’re thinking of writing a sports novel: verisimilitude isn’t enough or even what you should be aiming for. It’s important to bring something else to the field.