Sunday, April 5, 2009

The benefits (and perils) of first-person writing

One of the many things I learned from John Lofflin was to avoid first-person writing in journalism. It’s a rule I’ve tried to live by, and I believe I’ve only broken it on one occasion, last year when I wrote a magazine-length feature story about William Least Heat-Moon.

I’m proud of that story, but in hindsight it has a pretty serious flaw: at times, the story became more about me than about Heat-Moon. This is a common problem in first-person writing.

One hundred pages in, this is also the flaw in Mark Winegardner’s “Prophet of the Sandlots,” the non-fiction baseball book I’m reading right now.

Winegardner wrote the book after following baseball scout Tony Lucadello during the last year of the scout’s life. It’s a fascinating subject; Lucadello is a colorful figure in baseball history, and regarded as one of the greatest scouts of all time (more than 50 players he scouted made it to the major leagues).

Winegardner became a big part of Lucadello’s life in his final year, so it would be difficult to write around first-person (but not impossible). As written, however, oftentimes I feel like I’m reading a book about Mark Winegardner and not about the baseball scout.

Mark Winegardner is a very able writer, though, and this book was written pretty early in his career. Since then, Winegardner has written the excellent baseball novel “Veracruz Blues,” which I’ll be reviewing later, and he also became the successor to Mario Puzo’s “Godfather” saga. Winegardner was hand-picked by Puzo’s estate to write “The Godfather Returns” and “The Godfather’s Revenge.” (Puzo’s masterpiece is one of my favorite all-time books. Winegardner’s sequels fall flat compared to the original, but hell, that’s a mighty big pair of shoes to fill.)

But Winegardner’s talent in his other novels just serves to highlight the pratfalls of first-person writing, as seen in “Prophet of the Sandlots.”

--Matt Kelsey

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