Noah Cohan, "We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sport" (U Nebraska, 2019)

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Today we are joined by Noah Cohan, Lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and the author of We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sport (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). In our conversation, we discussed the nature of sports narrative, the way that fictional and non-fictional accounts can illuminate the lived experiences of fans, and the role sports blogs have played in reshaping sports narratives beyond the capitalist and competitive frameworks promoted by major leagues such as the NBA and the MLB.

In We Average Unbeautiful Watchers, Cohan investigates “the behavior of American sports fans to understand (its) cultural relevance beyond mere consumerism.” He argues that sports contain all the elements of traditional stories: beginnings, middles, ends, plots, characters, rising action, declension, and a causal trajectory. These narrative pieces allow fans to enact “consumptive, receptive, and appropriative” activities that are “fundamentally acts of narrative interpretation and (re-) creation.” Creative fans transform sporting activities into spaces for self-reflection and authorship and in doing so fundamentally remake sports to suit their individual agendas.

Cohan investigates five different types of sports narratives: fictions, fictional memoirs, memoirs, film, and blogs. These narratives include classics in the field, such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, but he mostly engages with relatively novel accounts such as Matthew Quick’s narrative metafiction Silver Linings Playbook, Scott Raab’s memoir of the early 2000s Cleveland Cavaliers, The Whore of Akron and the feminist sports blog Power Forward. These diverse genres of athletic storytelling allow Cohan to comment on how fans have used fictional and non-fictional accounts to build their own identities, address questions of social inequity, work through mental illness, and appreciate sports in new ways. His work also suggests that a more flexible understanding of fandom might allow us to rethink sports in meaningful ways, improving the way we play games, as well as open up new pathways to fandom, making it more inclusive for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.

Cohan’s work will appeal to a broad range of scholars, but especially to those with an interest in the intersections between sports, literature, and narrative.

Keith Rathbone is a lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His manuscript, entitled A Nation in Play: Physical Culture, the State, and Society during France’s Dark Years, 1932-1948, examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at keith.rathbone@mq.edu.au.

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