The problem with Bill James’s recent reflection on talent and how we develop it is that he’s got the numbers wrong. His concern is that we do a better job of producing athletes than artists and intellectuals — a legitimate worry! — and in thinking of how we might address this concern he writes,

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good — among the best in the world — and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

So every ten or fifteen years Topeka produces (or can be expected to produce) one major league player. Note that James doesn’t say that it produces a star, but just a player — so let’s assume that he’s an average player, likely to have a career of less than six years. At any given time there are 750 players in the major leagues — 30 teams, 25 players per team (up to September 1, when rosters expand to 40) — and with injuries, cuts, call-ups, and the like, during the average season more than 2000 different players will be on major league rosters. Some of those will be in the league during the whole of our average-player-from-Topeka’s six-year career, but many will be in the Show only briefly. So over six years we can safely say that there will be a few thousand people matching, at least temporarily, the achievement of our designated Topekan.

And we’re supposed to compare this guy to Shakespeare, who, among millions of poets and writers over thousands of years, is universally considered to be one of the top three? Given that baseball is only about 150 years old, the only semi-plausible figures to which one might compare Shakespeare are the titans of the sport: Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, and the like. Not an average major-leaguer from Topeka.

Dickens? One of the half-dozen greatest English novelists? The comparison is scarcely more plausible.

Graham Greene, then? I don’t think so. Greene is one of the major English novelists of the twentieth century. No one would call him the best, but he had a long and distinguished career with many memorable (and still read and taught) novels. Greene you might compare to, say, George Brett.

So what would be an appropriate literary comparison for our imaginary player from Topeka? I’d say that if every ten or fifteen years Topeka produced a writer good enough to get an MFA from a strong institution, to publish a number of short stories and a novel or two, and get tenure at a solid research university. And you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if Topeka manages that.

Text Patterns

April 4, 2011


  1. "So what would be an appropriate literary comparison for our imaginary player from Topeka?"

    Comparable across dissimilar areas are something of (as a friend gentle put it) an an area of special attentiveness for me.

    Career length makes this comparison difficult, but I would suggest looking at how many become MLBers each year and then look for similar matriculation in the world of letters.

    My guess is that by this measure, there are many more people who write novel and get tenure each year than there are people who become major league ball players. There are only 30 MLB teams. Would we draw "top research university" so narrowly?

    Or I suppose we can work it the other way. Name the top 30 unis, and then have a look at how many tenures in the relevant departments each year. I imagine there will be come arguing about which institutions should be on this list.

  2. Alan: Great response to James here. So good to know that, in addition to being a literary man, you are a baseball man. I believe that baseball, like math itself, will be in heaven.

  3. That's a really excellent response.

    Your standards for comparison, however, just make me feel sadder about the state of literature.

    An average MLBer makes $3 million a year and is cheered for by thousands of people (okay, depending on how average, maybe booed by thousands of people too, but still, *cared about* by thousands of people).

    The average successful writer…writes one or two novels that get published. No word on how many copies it sells or how many people actually read it. Then tenure somewhere? That's the measure of a reasonably successful writer these days? Since when was the goal of an author to become an academic?

    I guess you're probably right that that's what constitutes success in literature nowadays. But it makes me sad that the results are so meager.

  4. Remembering the denominator cuts both ways.

    There are so many more people alive right now than there have been for most of human history that statistically speaking, we should definitely have a Shakespeare-level talent writing today, a Mozart-level genius composing, a sculptor with the talent of Michelangelo, and many more.

    Just speaking statistically, the very best novels, music, painting, and other art works being produced today ought to be as good as or better than anything that has come before.

  5. Well, maybe, all things being equal. But maybe they aren't equal. Maybe the rise of Shakespeare, Mozart, and Machelangelo was partially dependent on particular circumstances, not just on individual talent.

    Maybe there's sort of a "conservation of talent" law to the universe: there's only a certain amount of talent available to humanity, and the more people there are on planet earth, the more spread out talent becomes, and less of it can pool in any single individual. 🙂

    Or, more plausibly, maybe with far more artists all being active at once, there is less chance for a singular artist to become famous and successful enough to come to be considered an all-time great.

    If there are 200 playwrights out there right now all "objectively" writing as well as Shakespeare at the same time, it's a lot harder to notice just one of them and say, "You know that guy there? He's as good as Shakespeare!"

  6. One more thing about Alan's criteria for a successful writer:

    Saying that a writer is successful when he gets tenure is like saying that a hitter is successful when he becomes a batting coach.

  7. Perhaps it can be said that great writers ultimately derive their greatness from the suffering Logos. Consider the following passages of Scripture.

    "At that time will I bring you, yea, at the time that I gather you; for I will make you a name and a praise, among all the peoples of the earth, when I shall turn again your captivity before your eyes, saith Jehovah." Zephaniah 3:20

    Most great writers have seen the insides of prisons (Shakespeare's might have been his own version of Romans 7). Granted great writers may have spent some time languishing in cafes,but their lasting, ironclad prose has been tempered by the fires of some sort of incarceration or grief.

    “Now therefore, thus shall you say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: “I took you from the sheepfold, from following the sheep, to be ruler over My people Israel.“And I have been with you wherever you have gone, and have cut off all your enemies from before you, and have made you a name like the name of the great men who are on the earth.”
    1 Chronicles 17:7-8.

    Most prolific and influential writers can also relate to the shepherd's perspective – they recognize the sheep-like nature of their audience. They can also relate to what Scripture means by "enemies" – This does not include twenty-something baristas who don't adequately froth one's beverage properly but an array of militant, jackbooted, square-jawed propagandists (and perhaps the occasional literary critic or two), who delight in making your thoughts illegal or at the very least seem jejune, who'd be more than happy to have you sip hemlock or vinegar whilst they publically mock and deride you.

    Words tempered by suffering make great writing.

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