Twelve ways to be better
Re-writing Sorkin’s ‘Advice to Critics’ for soccer writers
Michael Sorkin, the effervescent architecture critic and prose stylist, whose iconoclastic and thought-provoking work has been shaking the smug tree of established architectural thinking for over thirty years, set out a list of advice for critics in his book All Over The Map. It’s perceptive and righteous, and made me think about how football writers would do well to heed some of the lessons he seeks to impart. So here is my re-casting of the list. I have kept the headings the same for ease of reference.
1. Always Visit the Building: writing about anything from an armchair is comfortable, and, indeed, more practical than carrying notebooks or laptops with you everywhere you go. But, as Sorkin says, “A photograph is not worth a thousand words”. Visit stadia, watch games, talk to people outside and in. Sorkin again: “Use all your senses. Be intrusive…Look at the thing from nearby and from afar”. Prognostication from the safety of your study is all well and good, but don’t miss the sheer visceral effect of watching football in the flesh, whether it’s at the Emirates or your local park. You might learn something new.
2. Style is Seldom the Issue: Sorkin states “architecture is utility made beautiful…God may reside in the details, but people tend to live in the house”. He is criticising the tendency to obsess over the small and intricate matters that give ‘style’ to a project, when the ultimate result and, more crucially, its impact, should be the focus. Don’t get caught in the trap of being too detailed, or of showing off how much you know about tactics or subcultures or statistics by focussing so narrowly that you alienate the reader or miss the point. A narrative can start small, but it should end shouting something or you, risk, as Sorkin puts it, “buggering flies”.
3. Credit Effects, Not Intentions: do not buy into the “phony authority of intent…sources confer no special blessing”. Sorkin urges critics to bring their own ideas and values and not simply be a “conduit for someone else’s delusions”. Football writers should be inspired, by other writers, by the club they love, by a niche project they dream of making big. But write how you want and for the reasons you want to. Have your own opinions and don’t become a slavish mouthpiece or surrender to writing for hits. And follow your project through. Just having a great idea is not enough. If it’s great, work hard at it.
4. Think Globally, Think Locally: Sorkin urges critics to think responsibly about the environmental effects of a building, as well as how beautiful and useful it is. We, too, should consider the impact of football beyond the turf it is played on, whether it is environmentalism, or racism, sexism, homophobia, grass-roots football, financial irresponsibility, or anyone of a number of other major issues that lurk in the background. Don’t let the burnish of the beautiful game blind you to its ills, and challenge them where you can.
5. Safety First: Sorkin is challenging critics to have the dangers posed by a building, whether ecological or structural or material, as a central plank of their means of interrogation. We must hold football, its fans, teams, players, and governing bodies, accountable where they do harm. While the writing community is not the loudest voice in the world, there are many talented, opinionated, and fervent supporters of football who have a duty to challenge those aspects of the sport that are dangerous in any way.
6. Who Profits?: behind the process of building is a myriad array of movers and fixers, and Sorkin writes that “a critic is obliged to name as many names as possible of the real shapers of any work of architecture”. Similarly, the team that takes to the pitch is part of a set-up which includes the stadium and assorted property interests, commercial deals, tie-ins, merchandising and so on, and that is even before we take into account the complexities of club ownership and even player ownership. While we may chose to focus on the player, we should not forget, and should indeed even look closely at, who pays for him or her and how. The assembly of a team is as much a product of commercial interests as sporting ones.
7. Consult the User: the people who inhabit a building have opinions and those opinions matter. In football, as in anything else, the consumer’s opinion, the voice from the terrace, should not be effaced. Sorkin states that this does not imply that “their taste should trump the critic’s. However, inhabitant happiness is primary and their unhappiness is truly significant”. Just because we chose to write about football does not mean the non-writing fan’s voice should be forgotten. We should never assume we know better. The visceral connection that a fan has to their team means that, while they may lack objectivity, what they feel and think about their team is crucial, and we should listen.
8. History Is Not Bunk: this is a twice-meant observation. Every building stands in context, but we must be aware that one person’s context is not necessarily the same as another’s. We must ensure that we can look at the things as part of a historical narrative, sensitive, of course, to what came before and what may come after, but also aware always that ours is but one perspective on that. Sectarianism in football is one area where my reading and yours may be very different but genuinely understood within personal context. Issues of race are the same.
9. It’s the City, Stupid: “the big picture can only be observed by looking at the big picture”. Sorkin is urging the critic not to get bogged down in the minutiae again, but in this case, because architecture should be a window on society, not itself a focus abstracted from a wider context. Football is the same, or can be. Yes, in itself is worthy of study and effort and each game is unique and exciting. But when you bring football out into a wider, cultural or social environment, its meaning increases. Don’t get so caught up in an individual facet of the game and miss the context.
10. Defend the Public Realm: here Sorkin is talking about space, about the need to ensure our communal areas in cities and around them, the parks and fields, are not swamped and swallowed by the relentless pace of development. Analogous is the need for football writers to assert and, where necessary defend, the importance of the football which exists outside the realm of the few and the wealthy: grass-roots games, pitches owned by councils and schools, schemes for under-privileged children to participate in sport, and so on. It may be the least wealthy element of the sport, but it is the most impactful.
11. Keep Your Teeth Sharpened: be fair and be vociferous. If you have something to say, say it. Stick to what you think and do not be swayed by the fear of being unfashionable or too niche. Do not fear the judgement of those already entrenched in the Culture Industry; originality and good writing is always worth more than the pap of a vested interest.
12. Play Your Favourites: though Sorkin says, fairly and firmly, that “a critic should never be a publicist or a slut”, he also says that “the critic is out there to describe and defend a set of values in which s/he believes”. As with the above, stick with what you feel is right and if a manager or a player or a club embody values that you feel are worth praising, then praise them. Everyone believes in a way of doing things, and whether that is moral, ethical, financial, or tactical, if you find a kindred approach then shout it from the rooftops. But shout too when they dawdle or retreat. Values are to fight for.