A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along.
That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read—and that chocolate chip cookies are the true favorite American pastime.
The first story I ever moderated for this group was a Louis L’Amour western tale, and it went over like a lead balloon that hadn’t been rigged by Adam Savage or Jamie Hyneman.
It’s not easy for a first-timer to lead a discussion about a story no one much liked* in a genre no one cared to read. So when I was compiling stories for this year, I almost passed over Zane Grey—until I discovered that aside from myriad western novels and scripts, he also wrote baseball stories.
I took a chance.
This month’s story, “The Rube,” is narrated by the manager of a 1920s baseball team which has fallen to pieces. The manager goes scouting around in the barn leagues for a miracle and finds a lulu of a pitcher—he’s so good, he starts him in the next game. Unfortunately, the fans’ heckling makes the new fellow so nervous he can barely hit the ground, much less the catcher’s mitt.
The manager is tempted to pull him, but he remembers something he was told about the pitcher’s temper, so he enlists the team to get him good and mad with various insults, including calling him a Rube and a useless coward. The pitcher tells each of them that he’ll defend himself after he finishes the game—and proceeds to strike out every player he faces. The relieved manager goes into the dugout where, instead of a celebration, he finds that the Rube has kept his promise and decked every one of his teammates.
Turns out, the majority of the readers don’t care for baseball stories, either.
Those that did like this story thought it read like the old games they used to listen to on the radio, with every play described. But they admitted it was the baseball that held them, not the characters.
Those who weren’t baseball fans had a difficult time wading through the heavy vernacular—there was a discussion over whether or not the Rube was supposed to steal second and if he actually did, which ended with a chorus of, “Well, why didn’t he just say that?” Without the baseball draw, those readers simply weren’t invested enough in the characters to care about the outcome—which, it was pointed out, was not in question, except for the punching, which no one found particularly funny.
They decided that either the story was too short for character development or too long for such a dense lump of baseball game—even our baseball fans agreed that it went on for two innings too long—though a few thought it was unrealistic to have the turn-around of Rube during his first game—one short paragraph about a bad game or two might have been better, “Even if it would make the story longer.”
All this might have reflected the style at the time it was written—we weren’t sure about that—but it didn’t work for us.
No one denied that Zane Grey was a good writer—most of us had read or watched his westerns—but they had expected better of this story. “His writing is different in this story,” said a reader who claimed to have read all his westerns. “Not bad, but . . . is he trying too hard to be different?”
And no one denied that Zane Grey knew the game—he’d won a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and went on to play for a while with a minor-league team in West Virginia, while his brother played for the Pittsburgh Pirates—and it was obvious that he loved it, too, but it was the general consensus that he didn’t write baseball very well.
“Maybe he wrote it for his brother, and it was published because he was famous,” someone said.
I winced and mentioned that he’d written two books of Rube baseball stories, and that the characters and Mr. Grey’s skills at writing baseball might have developed through the series. But no one seemed interesting in finding out.
“He wrote such good westerns,” someone said. “He should have stuck to those.”
“He did,” said her friend.
The morals of this month’s discussion, then, seem to be that Writing What You Know and Love may not always work and brilliance may not cross genre lines.
What do you think?
*I hadn’t learned yet that this can make for a much better discussion.