The McPhee Tennis Zeitgeist

In Uncategorized on June 9, 2009 at 10:59 am

For those still wondering, the New York Times Book Review says they have rescheduled their review of A Terrible Splendor for Sunday, June 21. This is the day before Wimbledon begins, which is presumably their reason for choosing this date. I’m also guessing that they’re planning a double review with Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played. One hundred and thirty-five years passed since the invention of lawn tennis with no books about “the greatest tennis match ever played.” Then I had my idea, sold it, and spent three years researching and writing. Last fall, while going over the page proofs, I read that Wertheim, after attending the incredible 2008 Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, had decided to morph his Federer bio into a book about the match. What’s more, he was going to use the structure of John McPhee’s tennis classic, Levels of the Game—exactly the idea I’d had three years before! Can I not be original even in my imitation?

Optimists will say that the coincidence, and joint reviews of the two books, will help Splendor, building interest by sparking debate about which match was greater. Pessimists (don’t look at me) will point out that a much smaller group of people will read a review of two tennis books than will read a review of one book about tennis, the 1930s, the Depression, and the Holocaust. The two books are very different: Wertheim’s is a tennis book for tennis fans, and mine is a work of historical narrative nonfiction intended for a general readership. Now that his book is out (as of June 4), however, reviewers will almost have no choice but to lump the two together. 

But bless the bloggers. I’ve had a number of very nice emails from readers (maybe I’ll put them on the site at some point), and this grad student in North Carolina posted a stellar review on his blog. Too bad he’s in a Ph.D. program in medieval history instead of on the Times Book Review staff.

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