- Claudia Rankine on Serena Williams, black excellence, and the strange status conferred by corporate largesse: “The London School of Marketing (L.S.M.) released its list of the most marketable sports stars, which included only two women in its Top 20: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. They were ranked 12th and 20th. Despite decisively trailing Serena on the tennis court (Serena leads in their head-to-head matchups 18–2, and has 21 majors and 247 weeks at No. 1 to Sharapova’s five majors and 21 weeks at number 1), Sharapova has a financial advantage off the court … There is another, perhaps more important, discussion to be had about what it means to be chosen by global corporations. It has to do with who is worthy, who is desirable, who is associated with the good life. As long as the white imagination markets itself by equating whiteness and blondness with aspirational living, stereotypes will remain fixed in place.”
- Kingsley Amis, says Rachel Cusk, approached the short story as a kind of journeyman, self-consciously avoiding any rhetoric about the form’s high modernist possibilities: “His own stories, he said, were mere ‘chips from a novelist’s work-bench’ … With his talk of product and workbenches, Amis is trying to create the image of the writer as an ordinary worker, to dispel art’s associations with foppishness and pretentiousness and self-aggrandizement … It is as though, in the modernist possibilities of the short story, he perceived a threat both to his masculine and his writerly identity; yet for a generation of American male writers emerging contemporaneously with Amis, the short story was a sort of ‘working man’s’—indeed almost a macho—form.”
- Reader, I implore you to take a moment out of your day to consider the seagull—it is, now as ever, among our most maligned birds, and the root of our hatred for them is deep and etymological: “The word ‘gull’ doesn’t appear in English until the late medieval period, and its origins are unclear. It’s probably a loan-word from the Cornish guilan or Welsh gŵylan. But in the early modern period, the seagull suffered from its homonyms, particular the verb meaning ‘to deceive’.”
- At last, the year’s most essential, most probing listicle: a complete ranking of literary magazines funded by or affiliated with the CIA. The New Leader is there, and The Kenyon Review, and Mundo Nuevo, and—oh, what’s this? “Of all the publications on this list, The Paris Review may be the one with the weakest connection to the CIA … But the record clearly shows that The Paris Review benefited financially from selling article reprints to CCF magazines. This was far from the CCF’s direct participation in management of Der Monat or Encounter, but The Paris Review did derive some benefit from the CIA, and there is circumstantial evidence that this affected the choices of authors for its interview series. In a way, the Paris Review case shows how difficult it was for ‘apolitical’ highbrow literary periodicals to get through that period of the Cold War without some form of interaction with the CIA.”
- Garth Greenwell has spent many hours with Lidia Yuknavitch’s sex scenes, and has emerged a wiser, richer person for it: “Yuknavitch forces us to see the body in all its physicality, its flesh and fluids and excretions, and she depicts scenes of sex, including fetishistic and sadomasochistic sex, that are brutally visceral. Yuknavitch’s sex scenes are remarkable among current American novelists, not just for their explicitness but for the way she uses them to pursue questions of agency, selfhood, and the ethical implications of making art.”
Most of what I read about professional tennis, particularly the profiles of the game’s biggest names, appears around the Grand Slams, three of which are played over the summer here in the northern hemisphere. This was the summer of Roger Federer, Andy Murray and his new coach Ivan Lendl, and Venus and Serena Williams. Novak Djokovic, the world’s top men’s player when the summer began, had had his moment in Vogue in May 2011, during a season when, at one point, he’d string together forty-three straight victories and lose only six matches.
Near the end of that season, about a month after Djokovic saved two match points against Federer’s serve to win their U.S. Open semifinal, the New York Times Magazine ran an essay by Adam Sternbergh called “The Thrill of Defeat.” The occasion for the piece was the “278 million to 1” odds against the Boston Red Sox’s “epic” collapse during the 2011 pennant race. To a Federer fan looking back to the Open, though, those odds seemed about right. What also seemed right were Sternbergh’s thoughts about the basic absurdity of sports and, my affinity for Bart Giamatti notwithstanding, the “terrible sportswriters” who “argue that sports are a grand metaphor, a stage on which we witness essential narratives about determination, bravery and heart.” Read More
It’s a weird moment for women’s tennis. Not bad, but weird. Watch the bizarre slow-motion video montage of “women who hit very hard” on the Times website. Then watch it again. Underneath the glitter, these Amazons are straight out of Herodotus. But with the exception of the Serena Williams and perhaps the leonine Kim Cljisters, the glittering women here (Dementieva, Jankovic, Stosur, Azarenka, and Zvonareva) are mostly unknown to Americans. Serena’s withdrawal from the 2010 U.S. Open—she needed surgery after cutting her foot—and the absence of Justine Henin, the Belgian known as “the sister of no mercy,” has left the field wide open.
They say that the U.S. Open, with its fast and reliable surface, is the place where the best usually win. But in this year’s hobbled women’s draw, all bets are off—and, though Venus Williams, even with a bum knee, and the resurgent Russian Maria Sharapova, are always contenders, it will most likely be a woman whose name most Americans can’t pronounce, let alone remember. The men have Rafa and Federer; the women . . . Wozniacki and Clijsters?
The Women’s Tennis Association is no doubt praying for the requisite underdog to emerge, preferably an American under six feet tall. Melanie Oudin, last year’s darling, is apparently the most sought-after woman in the tournament, despite the fact that she’s ranked 43rd in the world. Oudin, the sunny, blond, all-American raced to the quarters of the 2009 Open wearing rose and honey-yellow Adidas sneakers inscribed with the word “BELIEVE.” But nobody believes she can do it again; the eighteen-year-old has a 17-20 record this year and came into the tournament on a four-match losing streak. So why is she so popular? Her success last year only accounts for part of it. Unlike the women in the Times video, who look more like LeBron James than Chris Evert, she’s diminutive, scrappy, and has a reassuringly all-around game. This morning, in the showcase Arthur Ashe Stadium, she filleted the court, demolishing the qualifier Olga Savchuk with the kind of tennis that defeated four Russians in a row at the Open last year. (For those who don’t have the Tennis Channel, you can watch many of the matches live on usopen.org.) It’s easy to see Oudin’s appeal—and her potential, if she can develop a big weapon that will counter some of her disadvantage in size—but it’s also hard not to wonder if some of it doesn’t come from a reaction against the rippling quads and veiny biceps of some of the more powerful girls, and against their consonant-laden names. The contrast between Oudin and Serena, the reigning queen of American tennis, can’t be missed either. When Serena lost in the semis at the Open last year after a profanity-filled rant against an official who called her for a foot-fault cost her match point, tournament director Jim Curley called her behavior “threatening.”
I, for one, am rooting for muscles. We’ve always wanted our beskirted players to be pretty; why not gorgeous? And is there anything more astonishing than the wave moving through Samantha Stosur’s quadriceps, echoed by those flowing pink pleats? She has the flanks of a thoroughbred, and the beauty.
Off to the races.
Louisa Thomas is a contributing editor at Newsweek. Her book, Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—A Test of Will and Faith in World War I, will come out in 2011.