McPhee brings reporting to new level in this classic book


John McPhee reveals much about the two protagonists in his book Levels of the Game. McPhee discloses their political beliefs, backgrounds, political opinions and fears. He also shows the reader how the main characters – Arthur Ashe and Chuck Graebner – play a game that has made them well known. But the game of tennis itself also reveals much about these two young players competing in the semifinals of the 1968 U.S. Open championships.

McPhee writes that tennis, like any game, reflects an individual’s personality: “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play” (McPhee 6). In the course of describing the tennis match, McPhee diverges from game descriptions to offer anecdotes, stories and commentaries about these two men. Sometimes, the diversions roll along for many pages. At other times, they stray for just a few sentences. As illuminating as these digressions are, they pale beside the on-court comments and thoughts of Ashe and Graebner.

There are many levels of thinking in this book. The players think to themselves, think aloud, and speak their thoughts during the lengthy match. Their thoughts are also offered when they speak in lengthy monologues and when others speak about them. The two players mutter, murmur, exclaim and shout their thoughts while on the court. As a result, readers get inside the heads of two prominent players – and other writers can use this book to get inside the head of a writer who not only finds a way to capture the thoughts of his main characters, but who also does an exceptional job inserting them into what is essentially a game story.

A rule of journalism: Don’t read people’s minds. (I knew you would think this is a good rule.) Sports reporters should not tell readers what they are thinking. “It drives some copy editors nuts,” writes Tim Harrower, author of Inside Reporting, “to read sentences like these: ‘Barb Dwyer dreams of being a rodeo clown someday. She feels certain it’s the best career she could choose’” (81). As Harrower points out, how does the reporter know how Barb feels? Reporters cannot observe one’s dreams, nor can they get inside the mind of people like this rodeo clown. Instead, journalists should revise the preceding sentence to read: “Barb Dwyer says she dreams of being a rodeo clown” (Harrower 81).

In journalism, where space is more limited, rules for citing sources are much different than they would be for lengthier novels. Even a relatively short book, like this 150-pager, allows for much more space to expand on ideas. In journalism, for instance, reporters are told they should beware of monologues, especially those that take up two to three pages, as some do in Levels of the Game. Most newspaper stories, even profiles, are fewer than 1,500 words. Allowing someone to speak for 500-plus words does not make sense in these shorter works. McPhee ignores this rule, like so many others. But it is his use of internal thoughts that he does best of all.

McPhee almost certainly spoke with Ashe, Graebner, and many people for this book, otherwise it would have been dismissed years ago. Like most reporters, McPhee must have asked the two tennis players many questions about the match, such as: How did you feel you played? What were your thoughts? What did you think when he served the ace? Unlike most journalists, though, McPhee then inserted these responses as thoughts as another play-by-play element. Readers can see the action taking place. “Left arm up, fish closed, index finger extended, he continues to point at the ball until he has all but caught it. His racquet meanwhile dangles behind his back. Then it whips upward in the same motions as for a serve” (McPhee 13-14).

Readers can also hear what Ashe is thinking here when he slams this lob back at Graebner: “Ashe maintains his cool appearance, but he is thinking, ‘My God, what’s happening? Here he goes. He’s going to get the first set. And if he does, my confidence is going right down the tube. Graebner is a front-runner, very though when he’s ahead. Someday, he’s going to get the lead on me and he’s not going to give it up” (McPhee 14). In the middle of a match people do not think so reflectively, coolly and structured. It is difficult to believe Ashe would think: “Graebner is a front-runner, very though when’s ahead.” That sounds like something said upon reflection, not in the moment. There are many such comments throughout the story. But they are rarely jolting, and nearly always illuminating.

McPhee offers the players’ thoughts in three ways – as an omniscient narrator who taps into the minds of players, as an objective narrator who reports what he sees and hears, and as a more limited omniscient narrator who gets into the minds less intrusively. In some ways, this final approach seems more a hybrid of omniscience and third-person objective than the clearly defined limited omniscience. At times, this presentation is more all-knowing; at others, it is more limited in the sense that the thoughts seemed to have come from some reporting. But, since it does not fall exactly into either of the other narrative points of view, I will refer to it as limited omniscience here. In this manner, McPhee typically introduces the players’ thoughts in something by writing “says to himself” or “tells himself.”

Early in this tennis match, Graebner feels pretty confident, knowing Ashe cannot handle his hard, accurate shots: “Graebner says to himself, ‘Look at him. He’s just slapping at my serves’” (McPhee 22). Later in the set, Graebner believes he might be able to win the match pretty easily: “Graebner is thinking, ‘If I break him now, his morale has had it’” (McPhee 34). But Graebner starts to struggle both physically and mentally, something Ashe realizes. The reader realizes this through Ashe’s thoughts. These two players, who are friends, know each very well. The see things in one another’s game that fans in the stands would never know. That’s why McPhee spent time getting to know these players and asking about their ideas and thoughts. Ashe, for example, knew that Graebner relied on his wife for support during matches, that he looked at her in stands, especially when he was struggling. After Graebner double faults, he does just this. “Ashe is thinking, ‘Graebner just looked at his wife.’ And behind Arthur’s impassive face – behind the enigmatic glasses, the lifted chin, the first-mate-on-the-bridge look – there seems to be a smile” (McPhee 50). This thought (and that Ashe knows his opponent so well) reveals much more than exposition or quotes could – even if the thought is not precisely how Ashe considered it during the match.

McPhee also taps into the characters’ minds omnisciently, where he has total knowledge of all characters’ thoughts. The author does not merely report what the characters think; instead, McPhee states the thoughts more authoritatively and knowledgeably. There is no “he thought” in the sentences. Sometimes, McPhee mixes in thoughts with game description, which allows the reader to understand what how the thoughts connect to the actions. In addition, this mixture helps propel the story forward. All reporters should play with narrative point of view. Try to get inside the minds of those you cover — a difficult and time-consuming task, for sure. That means you had better spend much time with this person and you must speak with others about this person in addition to other research. But this approach works well, when done right. Try this for a feature. Give yourself some time (and some space to write it.)

“Now the thought crosses Graebner’s mind that Ashe has not missed a service return in this game. The thought unnerves him a little. He hits a big one four feet too deep, then bloops his second serve with terrible placement right into the center of the service court. He now becomes the mouse, Ashe the cat. With soft, perfectly placed shots, Ashe jerks him around the forecourt, then closes off the point with a shot to remember. It is a forehand, with top spin, sent cross court so lightly that the ball appears to be flung rather than hit. Its angle to the o net is less than ten degrees – a difficult brilliant stroke, and Ashe hit it with such nonchalance that he appeared to be thinking of something else. Graebner feels the implications of this. Ashe is now obviously loose. Loose equals dangerous. When a player is loose, he serves and volleys at his best level. His general shotmaking ability is optimum. He will try anything. ‘Look at the way he hit that ball, gave it the casual play,’ Graebner says to himself. ‘Instead of trying a silly shot and missing it, he tries the silly shot and makes it’” (McPhee 82-83).

At other times, McPhee offers thoughts like extended interior monologues, allowing the characters to describe plays or to comment on ideas that extend outside the lines of the match for several pages at a time. McPhee also captures how these two players observe: “Ashe lifts the ball, hits, and the twist falls exactly where Graebner had imagined it would” (McPhee 120). Each approach allows the reader to learn much about the players and the match.

McPhee also reveals the characters’ thoughts through verbalized comments that nobody probably heard except, perhaps, a linesman or an umpire. McPhee would have relied on reporting after the match to learn the words spoken during an outburst or to hear the thoughts and mutterings of a frustrated or angry player in the middle of a heated match. McPhee inserts them into his play by play as if he heard the comments in the moment. Perhaps, McPhee heard the following comment spoken during a break when Ashe stood by the umpire’s chair: “’Thank God I never have trouble with the handle [of his racquet],’ Ashe remarks and return to the court” (McPhee 105). It is unlikely McPhee heard this since even reporters and fans are usually too far away to hear anything but loud exclamations and grunts. At another point, Ashe wins four straight points that include a loose, liberal shot that barely makes it over the net for a point, something that infuriates Graebner, who ‘mutters:’ “Arthur, you lucky bastard. How can you hit that shot?” (McPhee 114). A little later in the match, Graebner speaks angrily – something that reads much more like post-game commentary than a thought considered in the heat of the moment: “ ‘Wouldn’t you know at a moment like that Arthur would tear off an all-time winner,’ Graebner murmurs to himself. ‘Arthur’s weakness is his forehand. So I play to it on a big point and he hits a great shot.’ Fifteen-thirty” (McPhee 130). Either way, these comment add depth, offering explanations, commentaries and insights into the actions on the court and about the character of those playing the game.

A writer can’t be everywhere at once. Journalists need to verify all information before adding it to their stories. Sometimes, though, journalists need to trust their sources. But this idea is not comforting to most reporters (and to far fewer editors.) Journalists want to verify that the facts offered by sources are correct.

Once, while covering a story for a magazine, I needed to describe a moment from a football practice that I had never attended. To some in journalism, this is heresy. But the moment helped define a defensive back I had been assigned to profile. So I asked this college player to describe the scene – everything from how the play evolved to the weather and what others were wearing. I then posed some of the same questions to others at the scene to ensure the facts were correct. For example, the defensive back said the temperature was in the low 80s, and another person said it was hot (a much more subjective term.) A check of the national weather service verified the temperature in the area was in the 80s. As a result, I felt confident enough to report this (and several other) facts about the moment. That’s what a writer needs to do. But how do you verify thoughts? A writer can ask others if the source has repeated these comments before or can check letters and other writings to determine if these ideas had been repeated at other times. But, ultimately, one cannot always verify thoughts. Reporters do use this in stories, but on a more superficial scale. For example, a sports reporter might ask a batter what he was thinking right before he hit the game-winning double, but who’s to know if those were the batters’ actual thoughts. Journalists, though, usually feel much more uncomfortable digging into thoughts in much more depth and length to report stories in newspapers (and, to a lesser degree, in some magazines).

Writers like John McPhee, Truman Capote and Gay Talese seem less disinclined to report thoughts as facts. Perhaps, that is where creative non-fiction writers diverge from journalists. Even if these are not the exact words, unverified comments and thoughts can offer wonderful insights about people and events. So there is value in this. And readers appear to accept such offering more easily in a novel or essay than they would in a newspaper article. Thus, creative non-fiction writers can take more license and chances in their writings. So while the New York Times feels quotes should be cited without any alterations (“We regard quotations as absolutely sacrosanct. If there is any reason at all to be tempted to change them, then you take the quotation marks off and paraphrase it”), journalists like former Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich says one needs to be able to interpret what sources tell us (“The cruelest thing you can do to anybody is to quote him literally.”)

This is a major difference between creative non-fiction writers and journalists, but one that should not cause a chasm between the genres. Reporters regularly change and correct grammar and syntax, among other things, in quotes. People say what they mean but they do not always say it the way the mean. But, in the end, all we can do is trust that what sources say about their thoughts is true. After all, we’re not mind readers.



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