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BlogJanuary, 2008
The Gayness of Henry James, the Inspiration of Rod Smith

Using hundreds of letters only recently made available and taking a fresh look at primary materials, Novick reveals a man utterly unlike the passive, repressed, and privileged observer painted by other biographers. Henry James is seen anew, as a passionate and engaged man of his times, driven to achieve greatness and fame, drawn to the company of other men, able to write with sensitivity about women as he shared their experiences of love and family responsibility.

Ick. Is Random House trying to shed light on James, or sell a script to Lifetime?

I, for one, don't care if James was the flamboyant socialite Sheldon Novick describes, or if he was the celibate recluse Leon Edel depicts. My main concern is the art: Why did James eschew first-person narrators? How long was the first draft of The Golden Bowl ? When James penned "The Story of a Year," was Hawthorne's "Wakefield" on his mind?

Try as they might, neither Edel nor Novick can fetch authentic answers to these questions. And that's why I rarely like literary biographies. They flirt and they dance for 600 pages but they never get you naked with the subject. Straightforward interviews are far more fruitful – and efficient – if you're curious about the creative process.

For example: Have you read the recent Q & A with George R. R. Martin in Entertainment Weekly? It'll take you five minutes, and you'll learn loads re: Martin's writing mechanics. You'll also learn about plotting with predetermined endings and killing primary characters.

Moreover, you'll get Martin's thoughts on why the classics of science fiction belong in the traditional canon, alongside the legendary works of James and Hawthorne.

Now if only EW could run a Q & A with James.

***

The retirement of Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith didn't get as much media attention as it deserved.

First, the stats: In 12 seasons, Smith amassed 11,389 receiving yards and 68 touchdowns on 849 receptions. The breakdown:
  • He ranks 19th in all-time receiving yards: Ahead of hall-of-fame immortals Lance Alworth, Fred Biletnikoff, John Stallworth, and Paul Warfield.
  • He ranks 12th in all-time receptions: Ahead of the above four players, and also ahead of hall-of-fame members Steve Largent, James Lofton, Charlie Joiner, and Michael Irvin.
  • He ranks 31st in all-time receiving touchdowns, ahead of Joiner, Irvin, and Stallworth.

And if all this didn't make Smith a lock for the hall, consider his indisputable importance to Broncos championships in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.

Moreover, Smith is easily the best undrafted receiver in NFL history. Why wasn't he drafted? For one thing, he went to Division II Missouri Southern University. For another, he did not possess elite physical gifts. The Broncos actually waived Smith in 1994, toward the end of his rookie training camp. They re-signed him four days later, and he spent the year on the practice squad. He did little his next two seasons: He caught 22 passes for 389 yards and three touchdowns in 1995 and 1996 combined . Wide receivers Anthony Miller, Mike Pritchard, and Ed McCaffrey topped him on the depth chart.

Why does Smith's early history matter to me? For personal reasons: I dig the draft, and I dig stories of players emerging from obscurity. In my first novel, Zinsky the Obscure , protagonist Ariel Zinsky writes about unheralded college football players for a living.

Now, draft analysis has been an enjoyably inexact science since 1979, when the late Joel Buchsbaum first published his guide for Pro Football Weekly. Buchsbaum, in fact, became a muse for Zinsky the Obscure after I interviewed him for Inc in 2001. On Buchsbaum's heels came ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr., whose guides debuted in 1981. The larger point here is that, by 1994, the draft was no longer a Podunk operation. There were print publications, there was ESPN coverage. And all the experts missed the boat on Smith. Buchsbaum overlooked him. Kiper overlooked him. The entire NFL overlooked him. Wide receivers such as Thomas Lewis (Round 1, New York Giants, 74 career receptions in four seasons) and Ryan Yarborough (Round 2, New York Jets, 44 career receptions in four seasons) were selected while Smith was ignored.

The triumph of an initially overlooked player like Smith is an inspiration to dream-seekers everywhere. In my case – corny as it sounds – Smith's success helps me believe Zinsky the Obscure will find the limelight, too, if I simply stay optimistic and allow my faith in hard work to sustain me.

Ilan Mochari is a novelist and journalist living in the Boston area. His fiction has been honored by Glimmer Train. He is a former staff writer for Inc magazine, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO magazine. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

 
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Ilan Mochari