Pioneering exploration of a relatively unknown landscape for the sports historian

Daniel Alsarve
Örebro University


Lee McGowan
Football in Fiction: A History
124 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2020 (Critical Research in Football)
ISBN 978-0-367-36132-7

About 11 years ago, I participated in a project on fiction as historical source material. The result was, among other things, a conference and a book. The subject still tickles me and with great enthusiasm I have now read Football in Fiction: A History – a pioneering work that seeks paths to the past via football in fiction. For a sports historian with a couple of semesters of literary studies, and also a great interest in literature, this promises to be an exceptional reading experience.

The book is written by Lee McGowan, who over the years has published several articles on the subject. Using fiction as research data is by no means something new. In addition to historians and sports historians, literary scholars and sociologists have made extensive use of the rich and sometimes challenging source material of fiction. Pierre Bourdieu’s Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996) can be regarded as a classic in this area where theory development, historical context and text interpretation meet. McGowan’s book draws inspiration from more macro-oriented theory that deals with “big data” or “distant reading method”. The method is combined with close reading, but it’s not the kind of hermeneutic or phenomenological prediction that we encounter with for example Ricœur. Everything is relative and the “close reading”, to my mind, in McGowan’s case is still quite distant.

The foundation of the book is over 500 texts published during the last 140 years. The ambition has been to reach an understanding beyond the individual work and put the football stories in their historical context. Despite its extensive ambitions, the book is ideally short and scientifically effective in its structure and content. It is the enormous breadth and scope that impresses me most in McGowan’s work. Personally, I would never come up with the idea and if I did come up with it, I would reject it at the realization of the kind of effort it would require to pull this project off.

There is of course the danger of becoming superficial, but the book’s data reaches beyond the Anglo-Saxon sphere. To exemplify, McGowan mentions how Swedish libraries had to change their systems because the book I am Zlatan Ibrahimović was stolen from the shelves. As a Swede, I am tolerant of the reference being (Skåne, 2011) and not (SVT [Swedish Television], 2011). And it is not only Swedish contexts and Swedish football books that McGowan uses. The football fiction of the English-speaking countries is of course a given, but there are also examples from the treasures of literary football in Hungary, Chile and Iceland.

The genre is largely dominated by men both in terms of authorship and content, but McGowan finds a number of titles with women at the center around the 1920s, and more the closer we get to the 2000s.

I promise to deliver a few critical points of view as well, but before that I would just like to mention one more aspect that does McGowan’s contribution honor. In all scientific research, a definition is needed that delimits the amount of data. In this case, it is that football in one way or another must permeate and be reflected in the narrative structure, the situation, the perspective, the narrator’s voice, the use of language or characterize the book’s main characters. Of course, friends of order would want to know where the line goes – that is, what type of books have been chosen? Such a demarcation requires additional reading, which means that McGowan read significantly more than the 500 texts included in the study. The Plague by Albert Camus contains episodes about football and the author is said to have been a solid goalkeeper who once uttered: “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.” But the text has been omitted as it examines how meaninglessness and anxiety about death are handled by a crowd of people rather than primarily revolve around football. In other words, the definitions and selections are well-founded in McGowan’s work.

The book is made up of six chapters that function as a kind of helicopter landing. With the help of broad approaches, the reader gets to meet football in literary history, and then to approach contemporary examples with Fever Pitch as a kind of watershed in the canon’s absolute epicenter. Topography and conventions are dealt with in separate chapters, followed by a comparison between football literature aimed at adults and young people, respectively. The book closes with an ideally short conclusion. Regarding the research method, McGowan has taken inspiration from the literary scholar Franco Moretti’s book Distant Reading (2013). He uses a quantitative method that, for example, compiles different themes in chronological diagrams. The genre is largely dominated by men both in terms of authorship and content, but McGowan finds a number of titles with women at the center around the 1920s, and more the closer we get to the 2000s. In this way, social phenomena are reflected in the literature (women’s football was big around 1920 before it was banned and has grown gradually throughout the 2000s). I also appreciate McGowan’s gender awareness; he problematizes the football hero and other themes that consolidate men’s norms and power.

From a critical perspective, I experience a kind of recurring chafing during my reading. Is it not an impossible task that McGowan has undertaken? At the end of the book I also get an answer to this. A survey is necessarily a limited snapshot, no matter how extensive it may be. The genre and field are constantly changing, a slight twist in the definition would result in a different selection, which in turn could result in a completely different story. McGowan is well aware of this and it would not be fair to criticize the book in this way. If anything, it is the points of departure and Moretti’s methods that can be discussed.

The book is a pioneering work that should be considered an initial step in the exploration of a relatively unknown landscape for the sports historian. What the next step will be only the future will show, but I think it is of great importance to identify a more distinctly defined field of research than the one which McGowan outlines, and I do miss a review of the existing state of knowledge or a discussion that exposes its gaps. It would be exciting to employ other methods and literary theories in order to study the literature in a more limited way and at a closer distance. Why not focus on an epoch or a more limited chronological period? We know that the book about Zlatan was of great importance to many young people’s reading, but are there similar examples in the past, and what role has sports fiction played among children and young people over time? Future research has several interesting questions to ask about the past, and let’s hope that it does not take too long before the next researcher takes McGowans baton further.

Copyright © Daniel Alsarve 2020

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