Bill Simmons is many things — a partial list would include “well-compensated,” “hugely popular,” “owner of a surprisingly high-pitched voice,” “an unintentionally crypto-Borgesian accidental avant-gardist.” And there are also many things that he is not, which things are generally better covered here at CSTB than the other. “Intellectually curious” would seem to rank pretty high among these things-Simmons-is-not.
It’s not even clear to me that Simmons would object to that assessment, which he does little to conceal. He has his half-dozen film touchstones — the first two Godfathers, the first three Karate Kids and The Shawshank Redemption — and all the music he has ever copped to caring about in his decade-plus of writing would leave space in a five-disc changer. Book-wise, he reads about sports and is a fan of Chuck Klosterman and Malcolm Gladwell; if he has ever mentioned a novel, I missed it. Simmo watches about the TV shows that you’d expect, and while he is reliably caught up on whatever meatish Real World/Road Rules Challenge is currently airing, he watches your more blue-chip dramas at his own pace, which explains the oddness of him writing a 9,000-word (seriously) two-part column on The Wire and the NBA Playoffs last week. He doesn’t seem to have any politics, really. Again, these aren’t judgments of the guy: this, proudly, is the entirety of what he is working with in terms of non-sports referents, and I guess it’s to his credit that he has never tried to conceal any of that. It’s hard to argue that it hasn’t worked, both for his career and as often as not (if with decreasing frequency) in his columns. If his last few years have been peevy and thoroughly half-assed, his first few years were also legitimately new-seeming and often insightful. You already know all this. And you probably also know about Grantland, the (maybe a little grandiosely named) literary online sports magazine that Simmons is starting up at ESPN. Where it gets confusing for me, and maybe for you, is how or why the guy described above even comes to want his own literary magazine.
The ambition, of course, is both laudable and understandable — Simmons co-created ESPN’s eminently excellent 30 for 30 documentaries, and the idea behind Grantland may just be a literary version of that, in which writer types would have the room to stretch out and write long, interesting pieces. Whether he wants it to be The Awl or N+1 or Vanity Fair For Him isn’t clear yet, but that he wants it at all is kind of remarkable. The obvious problem with actually doing it, though, would be that while we know that Simmons watches plenty of television and (just in terms of Karate Kid re-watches) many hours of movies, it’s not at all apparent from Simmo’s work that the guy actually reads anything not written by 1) Bob Ryan or 2) Bill Simmons. But while Simmons regularly confuses length for depth in his own writing — and I know I’ve dropped some MF’ers, word count-wise, here and elsewhere, but also: 9,000 words on how the NBA is like a TV show that ended in ’08 — there’s also nothing that says that Grantland can’t work. Personally, I am not checking for middlebrow heavyweights such as Klosterman and Gladwell, who will contribute to the site, but other people are, and some of Grantland’s other hires are notably more interesting. And while the two pieces released last month as part of Grantland’s soft launch — a passionate but severely under-edited 5,000-word piece on the Knicks by the very excellent Katie Baker and a replacement-level summer movie thing by Molly Lambert, whose stuff is new to me — were not rapturously received, it’s still tough not to pull for Grantland. It might seem sky-high on its own supply — Dig the disclaimer, which reads in part “Before you read, remember: This will be a free-flowing narrative that occasionally touches on mature subjects” — but if Simmo creates a market for (paid) long-form sportswriting, then… well, it would be good for me, and also probably good for anyone who likes to write or read.
So, yeah: it’s too early — being that we’ve seen two pieces and one very unfinished-looking page design, and given that the site isn’t even supposed to launch until June — to judge Grantland. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it anyway. In a meticulous, merciless and Shermanesque razing of Simmons and his biggish idea, the pseudonymous (unless…) blogger Mobutu Sese Seko reduces Grantland to rubble and calls the whole enterprise into question, at the (aptly named) blog Mr. Destructo:
If at any moment either [ESPN or Simmons] had walked away from their relationship, it would have given the lie to ESPN’s claims to print things more subversive than “SportsCenter You Can Read” and Simmons’ claims that he had any ideas to be held back in the first place. Thus the need to create something like Grantland, which allows ESPN to pretend it’s breaking new ground by printing Gawker content from 2005, while Simmons gets to play the bad-boy who replaced his short woven corporate dog leash with the open-road freedom one of those really long clicky-handled corporate dog leashes.
…Bill Simmons has a perspective problem, and yet another vanity project like Grantland seems only to add to the evidence of it. A good argument against that conclusion could be made if the site had any kind of purposeful coherence. Allegedly it’s a serious sports website maintained by a man whose critical rigorousness about sports can often be measured by going to the IMDB “memorable quotes” page for a movie and trying to apply it to some random category like “interceptions made by New England Patriots, 2001-2010.” Allegedly it’s a serious cultural website maintained by a man whose cultural mind looks like one of those spooky MRIs of “ecstasy brains,” with all the black dead spots, and a bit where someone burned “SWEEP THE LEG” into it with a laser scalpel. Its celebrity contributors list reads like a Who’s Who of people whose only metric for understanding the human experience is the singular preciousness of themselves or the nauseating insipidity of corporate-retreat science. Then there’s the preposterousness of the name. Bill Simmons is to Grantland Rice what Tucker Max is to Hunter Thompson.
The piece is not always fair and I don’t agree with some sizable-ish portions of it, but the Taibbi-an scope and scale of its bile-spray is impressive. It won’t happen — ESPN is nearly as thin-skinned as Simmons, and neither is treated very kindly in the essay — but if Simmons really wanted to surprise people, he should hire Mobutu. Mature subjects, mature approach, all that.