Monday, 31 May 2010


The discussion of boxing fiction on Open Book yesterday was very good; you can link to it on BBC IPlayer, at least for the next week, here, it starts about ten minutes in. It would have been fascinating to have done it live, because as it was edited it set up what sounded almost like a fight, as if I were being contradicted by Prof. Kasia Boddy, author of Boxing: A Cultural History, when in fact we would have been agreeing had we been talking face to face.

You'll hear me say 'there aren't very many roles for women in boxing novels, because they are about the physicality of men'. Then it cuts to Boddy explaining the importance of women's roles! Perfect! But actually, I had gone on to describe the way I see women's roles falling into archetypes: the nice woman who represents society and usually doesn't want the fighter to fight, the bad woman who represents temptation: either to fix fights or break training, and the long-suffering woman who supports the fighter, whose roles are usually the least interesting (the brilliance of Cathy Moriarty's performance in the film Raging Bull is partly because the role conflates these stereotypes and inverts them.

Prof. Boddy used as good examples of the central role of the woman as watcher Pip's fight in Great Expectations (and here it's interesting to place Estrella's reaction to the fight, much more on the 'bad girl' side of the coin!) and, more to the point of organised boxing, Jack London's story 'The Game', in which Genevieve dresses as a man to watch her fiance's last fight. Which turns out to be literally his last fight. Interestingly, London used the same device, the last fight, in a serialised short novel, 'The Abysmal Brute', but this time let the fighter survive. So it would have been interesting to go face to face and slug it out with examples of the woman's role in boxing fiction. And even more interestingly, one of the things I had talked about was the cardboard quality of the woman in Thomas Hauser's book--it would have been nice to hear Boddy's take on her.

It struck me, while I was writing this, that the place of women in boxing fiction is very much like their roles in westerns--they become the central symbols of the narrative, the nice woman representing society, the bad woman representing the lawless world--what we'd call the underworld in boxing, and the long-suffering wives out of the plains. There's another essay in there.

Sadly, my own reading of a passage from W.C. Heinz's The Professional didn't survive; the readings were done by an actor, because of course you need to vary the voices from the other contributors. But sadly, the actor chose to read Heinz in that sort of half-Bronx half-Brooklyn dese and dose talk the BBC loves to use for American tough guys. The problem is that Heinz's narrator is not a punchy pug, but a magazine writer, a trained observer and writer, and his prose reflects that. Oddly, the actor gave Jack London's passage a straight-forward reading, without the cross-borough accent, and it worked much better.

Of course if we'd done it live, Boddy, or someone would have caught me on a huge embarrassing mistake: as I mentioned On Boxing as being written by Joan Didion, when of course it's Joyce Carol Oates, something I know well. Oddly, I didn't even notice the error when I listened to the show, but it's an awful one. My apologies to both great writers.

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