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at last, a golf thing that i can comment on

Drew's Cool Golf Revue
at last, a golf thing that i can comment on
By Drew Millard • Issue #10 • View online
let’s all talk about the joan didion article on golf dot com

The above Tweet, and many others like it, helped send a Golf.com headline Bad Viral. As you can see, the headline is incredibly unfortunate, and if you click on the actual article, you will mostly find overwrought nonsense. Still, I am very glad that it exists, and not just because if my friend Naomi hadn’t texted me about it yesterday I would have just played Disco Elysium all day instead of writing this post. 
The guy who wrote the piece, Michael Bamberger, is a former Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, current Professional Big Name Writer for Golf.com/Golf Magazine, and the author of approximately one billion books, many of which are about golf. Which is great. I’m writing a book about golf, too, and I just finished a draft of it, which explains why I was going to waste yesterday playing a computer game, and why I will waste the rest of today playing a computer game after I publish this. 
Anyways, it seems like what happened here is as follows:
  1. Michael Bamberger really wanted to write about Joan Didion, probably because he really likes Joan Didion’s writing.
  2. Michael Bamberger writes for Golf.com, so he had to shoehorn a golf angle in.
  3. The resulting article read like an undergraduate prose poem. 
  4. A web editor tried to salvage some traffic by giving it a headline that suggested the piece was going to offer a golf tip.
Like, I barely have any idea what he’s talking about in this piece, and I’m probably the closest thing he has to an intended audience. Dude really took the fact that Didion wrote about golf in exactly one line of dialogue in Play It As It Lays (which is, to be fair, a golf term) and valiantly spun it out into a whole-ass blog post for a golf website:
You can replace Californian with Scots-Calvinist. Not just do it. Get it done. You know, Hogan. Woods. I feel for Tiger. He wants to play the shots.
Didion taught herself to write with precision by typing out Hemingway. Her sentences were efficient.
Hogan and Hemingway are pretty much the same people.
A cover of Play it as it Lays shows a coiled snake, tongue out.
And:
Somebody tell — No, in the spirit of the season, I’ll omit the first name that comes to mind. Didion would wonder why. Who are you protecting? And why?
If you come up to your ball and there’s a snake by it, don’t do a thing. Just wait for the snake to get out of the way and play your shot.
If the snake moves your ball, then you can touch it. The ball, that is. You put it back where it was and carry on.
I realize that it seems like I’m taking Bamberger’s words out of context, but the problem is the words around the above words offer absolutely zero context whatsoever.
From a quick scan of his oeuvre, it seems like Bamberger is one of those sportswriters who’s somehow convinced himself that the Art of Sports exists so that he can to erect towering allegories for his banal, weirdly apolitical analyses of America—someone who is going to ride the Plimpton wave with the same stoicism that Tom Brady displays in the pocket, waiting for his receivers to run their routes.
The same stoicism with which his dad drove the family Studebaker.
His dad would have never scrambled away from a defensive end and try to pick up a couple yards.
The scrambling quarterback is like his son Lars, who he mistakenly allowed to attend art school and ended up becoming an unemployed Lower East Side coke dealer who has ALLLLL the time in the world to read DeLeuze but NOOOOO time to read his father’s texts???? (To be clear, Lars is not Bamberger’s literal son; he is the metaphorical son of every sportswriter who writes like this.)
As someone who just spent over a year writing a golf book that I really hope doesn’t end up reading like a Millennial throwback to this style, however, I am deeply sympathetic to his plight. This type of writing isn’t really that big of a thing anymore, partially because Deadspin happened and dragged the entirety of sportswriting into a more conversational direction. But also, younger writers shy away from trying shit like this because, as you can see, when this style fails, it does so in flagrant, deeply embarrassing ways, and our generation is deeply terrified of people making fun of them on the internet. We write defensively, and maybe a little more snarkily than we ought to, out of a sense of self-preservation. 
Bamberger, meanwhile, is of a generation of writers whose relationship to, and maybe even conception of, “the reading public” is vastly different from mine. For all I know, Michael Bamberger wrote one of these wild-ass pieces a year for his entire tenure at Sports Illustrated, but because the articles weren’t on the internet, it was unlikely that people who weren’t already into sports, and into sportswriting like Michael Bamberger’s, would encounter them and see them as objectively (to them) laughable. Meanwhile, if individual SI readers weren’t into his experiments in sportsliterature, they could just skip to a different article. And even if they did stumble on such a piece and find it unintentionally hilarious, there existed no mechanisms through which they could publicly make fun of it before a potentially unlimited audience. They could call a friend and tell them about it, and that person might feel inclined to tell a friend of their own, but the rate at which the message of “Hey, read this article” could spread between people was much slower than it is today. 
Judging from the traffic numbers I would get to read while working editing jobs, I suspect that social media isn’t conducive to an information economy where a bunch of people are nodes in article-sharing networks, though. Instead, it’s more like people exist as nodes in reaction-sharing networks, and occasionally they will read the same articles that the people in their networks are reading so that they can understand their internet friends’ reactions to them.
The network effects inherent to this system are just as likely to promote YouTube videos or the new Matrix movie as they are a screenshot of a Golf.com headline about how Joan Didion didn’t play golf, devoid of a link. In that last case, the image becomes the reaction in addition to the thing being reacted to, because the reaction is just “haha this headline is ridiculous.” This sort of context collapse happens all the time online, and while participating in its cycle momentarily allows us to feel like we’re part of the in-group, it doesn’t really serve us in the long term, and yes I’m aware that this entire post would not exist if it weren’t for that same cycle but whatever.
Maybe I’m thinking way too hard about this, but I kind of admire Michael Bamberger and his bonkers Joan Didion article. That’s the kind of risk no one takes on the internet anymore, mainly because it’s an aggressively bad idea. Too often, publications run pieces not because they’re good, but because the pitch that preceded them didn’t scream “aggressively bad idea” and/or “maybe this will go Good Viral.” Rather than yielding good bits of writing, though, the editorial stance of “don’t accept aggressively bad ideas” tends to lead to a crush of same-y mediocrity, where every article is a Mad Lib of the one that preceded it, yielding audience attrition and hellfire and chaos as a result. 
In Bamberger’s case, the risk did not pay off. I have no idea what a good version of that piece would have looked like, or even if it could exist at all, but even in its rambling, haphazard form, I’ve thought more about it in the past 24 hours than I’ve thought about any other internet article in the past month. That counts for something, and the more people try stuff online and fail in interesting ways, the more people will think about those failures, and use them as jumping-off points to create something that’s completely different and, hopefully, Actually Good. This isn’t the same magical thinking that drives VCs to sink a billion dollars into a pontoon-boat-share app or whatever — failing on the internet is free. The only cost, of course, is that people might make fun of you.
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