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How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart (1994) [pdf] (psu.edu)
45 points by thomasjbevan 38 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 34 comments

I think the author misses the point.

As a beginner jazz musician, I saw Pat Metheny in concert -- he killed, of course -- and afterwards, I asked him what he thought about when he played. His reply? "I don't think; I just play."

Clearly, Pat Metheny is not devoid of insight. He put in years and years of preparation so that when the time comes, he can go for it. If you asked him after the fact to analyze one of the improvised solos he played that night, he could write it out on manuscript and go through what he was doing harmonically and melodically at any given point. But improvising it live, in real time, is a different thing. And having the chord changes, the instrument mechanics, and so forth down to muscle memory doesn't make for a shallow player; it clears the way for operating on higher levels of abstraction like emotion, language, and motivic development.

Maybe Tracy Austin is really that boring. Or maybe she and her ghost writer focused on what people think they want to know about rather than where the depth really is. You want to really learn what makes a great athlete? Sit with them as they watch the game video afterwards and see how they analyze things. See how they translate those insights into practice, into actionable items that you can deploy at a moment's notice during a game.

With respect, I think you rather missed his point. He is not making an argument that "Tracy Austin is really that boring," though he does set the reader up for this thought, so that he can playfully turn on it on the way to his conclusion.

Your analysis is a gesture towards his conclusion: "And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius, must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it - and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence."

Moreover, DFW speaks of the cliches evident in the internal narratives of athletic genius as, perhaps, perceived by their speakers as simple truths, imperatives to be acted on or ignored, not reflected on.

He also specifically calls out as foolish the idea that gifted athletes are dim, citing examples of technical analysis similar to the ones you've mentioned.

Finally, this piece is very specifically about the physical techne of athletes in relation to their internal and external narratives, which I, and I think DFW based on this piece, do not find of a kind with musical genius.

Hard not to read defensiveness into the piece. DFW failed at becoming a tennis pro and he's covering that territory from his intellectual sanctuary. He's watching from the bleachers here.

People who do, don't need fancy words or justifications, the proof is already in the pudding. Fetishizing language is the province of the thinker, the ponderer, the stay-at-home-and-read-er. Just like a seasoned pornography enthusiast, the shine of the base experience wears off.

"I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled."

Here is some data to support the assertion that nothing is going through their head during their performance: https://sports.ndtv.com/football/neymar-s-brain-on-auto-pilo...

“Brazilian superstar Neymar's brain activity while dancing past opponents is less than 10 percent the level of amateur players, suggesting he plays as if on auto-pilot, according to Japanese neurologists.”

It's the opposite of "choking".

If you are extremely comfortable doing something to the point that you can do so automatically, then actually thinking about it will be much less effective.

That reminds me of a fairly common place observation about combat pilots in world war II. Flight experience was necessary but not sufficient - the most successful fighter pilots were so good that flying was largely an after thought but there were a large number of very good pilots who - whatever they wanted to happen - would use their flying abilities to stay out of trouble and not much else.

There were also a number of bad pilots who functioned as targets; taking so much time and concentration to merely keep the plane in the air that they didn't realize there was a killer behind them.

continuing this chain of thought, there's the whole idea of no mind that comes to mind here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushin_(mental_state)

A popular culture reference shows up in this clip that's pretty good https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbecIBvR3mE

I've always thought that this phenomenon is what is being referred to when athletes talk about being in the zone.

More machine than man

Thanks for submitting this. I’ve read a few athletes’ autobiographies and was always let down by the banality of the prose and the lack of insight. A good example is Lynn Hill’s “Climbing Free: My Life In The Vertical World”. Even the title is dull. Lynn Hill is surely one of the most extraordinary athletes to ever live, and yet her book reads like ghost-written ad copy. DFW’s conclusion at the end of this piece offers some reasoning behind this. It’s kind of incredible and I’ll be thinking about it for a while.

If you're looking for good climbing autobiographies, try Tommy Caldwell's "Push" or Dierdre Wolownick's "The Sharp End of Life." Caldwell's book is well-written and shows deep insight, perhaps due to the severe hardship he experienced. If you liked "The Dawn Wall" (one of my favorite films), you'll like the book.

Wolownick's book might be my favorite climbing memoir. Wolownick is Alex Honnold's mother, but she's not cashing in on his success; this is her own story about finally embracing her own life after years of self-sacrifice in an unhappy marriage. She is a writer first and foremost, and she tells a beautiful story about life. The climbing scenes are gripping and relatable because she is such an ordinary person--which makes her accomplishments all the more extraordinary.

or Anatol Boukreev: "Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer"

Since you enjoyed this essay, DFW’s essay on Federer ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’ is a must-read. As someone with no interest whatsoever in tennis it managed to get me fired up and watching highlights for an hour afterwards. It’s spectacular.

This is a very late response, but thanks. I’ll give it a look.

Because I find the title gives no indication what to expect, the author is David Foster Wallace, and here's the first paragraph:

> Because I am a long-time rabid fan of tennis in general and Tracy Austin in particular, I've rarely looked forward to reading a sports memoir the way I looked forward to Ms. Austin's Beyond Center Court: My Story, ghosted by Christine Brennan and published by Morrow. This is a type of mass-market book—the sports-star-"with"-somebody autobiography—that I seem to have bought and read an awful lot of, with all sorts of ups and downs and ambivalence and embarrassment, usually putting these books under something more highbrow when I get to the register. I think Austin's memoir has maybe finally broken my jones for the genre, though.

On further reading, wow, that's pretty savage. Sure seems disproportionate to me. For example, I wonder if you can be as outraged as DFW that:

> The author's primary allegiance seems to be to her family and friends.

as opposed to that allegiance being to the reader, whom she owes because, it seems, of the reader's interest in her:

> Obviously, a good commercial memoir's first loyalty has got to be to the reader, the person who's spending money and time to access the consciousness of someone he wishes to know and will never meet.

In fact, as someone who has at times enjoyed DFW immensely, it's hard to imagine a writer who writes more for himself than DFW, so the complaint comes across as a bit off-base to me.

The essay in fact makes one salient point: if athletes' life stories and interviews are often unbelievably vapid, perhaps it's because athletes don't have much of a mind for anything beyond perfecting one thing that they do well. Specifically they don't do much self-reflection in poetic and witty terms.

I was reminded of this essay when listening to Lewis Hamilton's interview for the ‘Beyond the Grid’ podcast. I vaguely dreaded this very prospect in advance, but Hamilton really shamelessly overshot my expectations, it's almost a Hollywood-esque story of perseverance by the whole family. Guess I'll stick with watching the man's pole laps, they're way more satisfying.

But DFW writes for himself by doing what he's demanding: exposing his consciousness, his self-commentary, his inner life.

Also, that line ("The author's primary allegiance seems to be to her family and friends") is unequivocally ironic. "Seems to be"? As though it's a surprise? DFW knew what he was doing. If anything the line is an indictment of his (and our) indignation at not getting access to Austin's consciousness and lived experience for the cost of a paperback.

> Also, that line ("The author's primary allegiance seems to be to her family and friends") is unequivocally ironic. "Seems to be"? As though it's a surprise? DFW knew what he was doing. If anything the line is an indictment of his (and our) indignation at not getting access to Austin's consciousness and lived experience for the cost of a paperback.

I'm sure that there is some of the subtext you mention in it—this being DFW, I'm sure there's every kind of subtext imaginable in it—but I'd be more inclined to buy that it wasn't also a fully meant indictment of the author if it weren't part of a pages-long attack that, though it could surely be profitably directed at the genre, is also, to my mind excessively, personal. You can be ironic all you want, but "there's little sign in this narrator of the frontal-lobe activity required for outright deception" is just mean.

It sounds as though "just mean" is an obvious impeachment in your view, and if your position is that we shouldn't write and publish mean things, then...well, that's fair.

I'll agree it's mean. But in many ways I think the piece teaches worthwhile lessons by being very specific, which may also be excessively personal. For example, the novel idea of the author occupying a reality that "is not just un- but anti-real" doesn't land without the preceding litany of cliches. That sets up the next couple pages, which asks how we should read this sort of unreliable narrator, and proposes the explanation that maybe she's just that stupid. You objected to this—the "frontal lobe activity" bit—but so did DFW, rejecting that explanation and calling it "literally incredible" then proving it with examples.

I don't think that arc makes much sense in the abstract. And the specificity is even more necessary in the next move, from page 148 to 151, making the larger point about the depth and potential that existed in her specific story. And that, of course, gives us a grounding to consider the broader questions: DFW acknowledges that "neither Austin nor her book is unique" and turns to the central question: why the fact that athletes are "stunningly inarticulate" is "always so bitterly disappointing," which is about the genre.

The conclusion—the last four paragraphs of the piece—isn't just dusting over the meanness. The possibilities discussed on the last page are real ones and also deeply troubling to intelligent people, DFW included, who derive a lot of self-worth from their "interior struggle."

> It sounds as though "just mean" is an obvious impeachment in your view, and if your position is that we shouldn't write and publish mean things, then...well, that's fair.

I was advancing it as a rebuttal to what I took to be the claim that "The author's primary allegiance seems to be to her family and friends" is entirely ironic, which you did not explicitly advance. If you were claiming only that the line was ironic in part (while also being a criticism of the author), then I suppose I can agree with that, but then this:

> Also, that line ("The author's primary allegiance seems to be to her family and friends") is unequivocally ironic. "Seems to be"? As though it's a surprise? DFW knew what he was doing. If anything the line is an indictment of his (and our) indignation at not getting access to Austin's consciousness and lived experience for the cost of a paperback.

doesn't seem like a rebuttal of my claim of savagery (on which I'm not sure we disagree, so that I'm not sure on what we are disagreeing—I didn't say it's not OK to be savage (though I personally find it unappealing here), just that this piece is savage).

Maybe it's wrong, but highly-regarded authors writing really mean reviews of work they consider embarrassingly (for the author of the work under review, had they any shame and the good sense not to subject the public to this, which clearly they do not, is the usual implication or outright statement of the review) terrible or highly over-rated is practically a literary genre of its own. This hardly stands alone, and is a continuation of a time-honored (if, again, maybe wrong, or bad, or what have you) tradition.

... in fact, much of the tone of writing on the early and mid-period Web was pretty similar, including some that was among the most well-known, and strong backlash against that in favor of gentler writing has only come in the last decade or so. Simply common and normal, hardly meriting comment, then. Perhaps humanity has recently experienced a great moral leap forward.

> it's hard to imagine a writer who writes more for himself than DFW

I don't think this is entirely true. He understands his job, as he'll admit in the middle of some essays.

Consider one of his more famous essays, "Consider the Lobster":

At one point:

> I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.

And later on:

> For those Gourmet readers who enjoy well-prepared and -presented meals involving beef, veal, lamb, pork,chicken, lobster, etc.: Do you think much about the (possible)moral status and (probable) suffering of the animals involved?

He's very specifically targeting the reader.

I think the common charge against Wallace is that he is very smart, which is fine, but he is so _obviously_ intelligent; so neurotically intelligent that he couldn't leave any stones unturned or examined. And that's inexcusable, since obviously anyone who writes as such must be fully up their own ass. His struggles with mental health and self-worth push back on that analysis.

Most importantly, I think, is that his job is to be those things. Anyone hiring Wallace _is_ paying for that work. He is entirely himself and delivers on that product. His disappointment in this autobiography is that it fails to deliver.

> Most importantly, I think, is that his job is to be those things. Anyone hiring Wallace _is_ paying for that work. He is entirely himself and delivers on that product. His disappointment in this autobiography is that it fails to deliver.

This, I think, is the point. I could not dream of accusing Wallace of not understanding his job. However, what he wrote was still for him; it was his vision of himself and the world around him, and if someone were to complain that it did not live up to their vision of him, then he—while doubtlessly adding that criticism to his inner monologue—would surely not have thought he should adjust his writing one whit because of it.

Here, though, he seems to be complaining that Austin isn't who Wallace expected her to be, not that she's not authentically herself. He seems to be complaining that she's shallow, while fully acknowledging that he's partaking of a genre that he knows does not demand or reward deep soul searching.

>He is entirely himself and delivers on that product

As on a simple thing such as a luxury cruise in "A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again":

"They’ll make certain of it. They’ll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun. Your troublesome capacities for choice, error, regret, dissatisfaction, and despair will be removed from the equation. You will be able – finally, for once – to relax, the ads promise, because you will have no choice."


If you're looking for a good tennis autobiography, I can recommend Agassi's Open. I've even seen people not interested in tennis read and like it.

For a more technical one I can also recommend Sampras's Champion's Mind. An amazing tennis memoir.

Absolutely agree about Open. It's without a doubt the very best tennis autobiography (written with an NYT writer) I've ever seen, and I've seen a ton of them. (Jack Kramer's The Game is pretty good too.) "Shot and a Ghost" by James Wilstrop, a top pro squash player (they make about as much money as the No.200 tennis player), is pretty good too about the mental struggle.

This is one of my favourite essays because it completely changed the way I thought about my own skills. Namely, it taught me that a good way to evaluate my own skills is to examine the gap that exists between my skillfulness in some given field and the skillfulness of people who are not in that field or are novices within it.

My takeaway from the essay was not that athletes are vapid or unaware of how much more skilled they are than laymen or amateurs.

My takeaway is that when you're really good at something, to where you can say you're better than a lot of people at it, you're often not aware of exactly how good you are at it and may even see it as banal. Where other people might look at some skill you have and be blown away and wonder what it's like to be so good at something, you just recognize it as your default and unremarkable state.

An analogy I can think of is literacy. Many years ago, I taught myself literacy in a non-Latin script for a language that I had grown up speaking but had never actually learned how to write. Reading in a new script was incredibly slow at first, as I would literally have to sound out every individual letter in my head, and then manually put them together in my head to understand the word. A sentence would take me minutes to read. Over time, I would see words that I had read many times and I wouldn't need to sound out the letters in my head anymore, I would simply "recognize" the word: my brain would recognize the collection of letters as an image associated with a concept.

I realized that I had always done this with English and had never been aware of it. When I read English, I'm not really reading each word as a collection of individual letters; I'm reading each word as an image for lack of a better term that I can immediately associate with meaning in my head, and I think this is how most people read English.

How this is relevant to this essay is that if you were asked about your ability to do this, you would think it something completely banal and regular. You might not even have any particular comment to make, as you'd simply see your literacy as your personal status quo. You've spent most of your life actively training your skill of literacy and have attained mastery, but to you its...just reading. Suppose you talked to someone barely literate, or someone learning literacy in English, about this ability -- to them this ability would be much more impressive because the gap between their skill and your skill is much wider.

I think realizing this about yourself has all sorts of applications: confidence in your ability lets you experiment more or take action when you have less info or security on the outcome of your action. Realizing what comprises a given skill gap would help you teach others how to get to where you are in a way where you teach them at their level, not yours.

My recollection is that Bill Bradley's A Sense of Where You Are wasn't bad. But I must have read it forty-odd years ago, and don't remember whether he had a ghost-writer.

This piece has always stuck with me for describing how some champion athletes succeed because of their lack of introspection rather than in spite of it.

why is this on hackernews? its just a popular author complaining about a book he didn't like, co-written by a sports person he did like. Who cares? Certainly it's not tech related news.

“On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.”

Im pretty sure the majority of users here also look at porn, but it wouldn't be appropriate for this site.

Know how I can tell you didn't finish it?

How? Please enlighten me. I know that there are people who rather like DFW's navel-gazing and projection, but there's nothing of substance in it otherwise. At all.

Thank you!

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