I went to see the film adaptation of Moneyball last week with my wife. It’s the perfect date movie: Men can geek out on the baseball ambiance and the stats while the women can gaze on the magnificence that is Brad Pitt. I thought it was a very well-made and well-acted movie, albeit a bit too mired in general manager Billy Beane’s existential gloom. One scene in particular, though, really struck home with me.
As most people know, the problem facing the small-market and hence cash-strapped Oakland A’s was that they needed to replace three blue-chip free agents critical to the team’s success who had been snatched away from them by deeper pocketed franchises. The problem, of course, and as ever, is money: those kinds of proven ballplayers were priced out of the range of the A’s meager resources. In the course of the search, Beane has hired a Yale-trained numbers cruncher with a new, data-driven method of identifying undervalued and affordable talent. His brain on fire with this new paradigm, Beane meets with his cadre of scouts, a grizzled group of veteran baseball watchers with a couple of centuries of experience among them. Naturally, they have all set to identifying particular ballplayers who might fill in for the lost superstars, based on their finely honed instincts. Wrong, Beane informs them in a scene breathtaking in its casual cruelty, you are going about solving our problem all wrong, he tells them. We don’t need replacements, we need players who can get on base, in every way possible. I got a guy with a laptop here who will show you why.
You can imagine how well that goes down. At which point I had one of those insights that I’d have preferred not to have: as a book editor of three decades-plus experience I am precisely in the same position as those scouts. What, after all, do I do but spend my days searching for and judging talent and putting a price on it? Here is a well-regarded writer in mid-career who just might have a breakout book in him yet. Here is a journeyman nonfiction writer with a good eye for a subject and a modest fan base, but should we stick with him or cut loose? Here is a phenomenally talented first novelist who just screams rookie of the year—offer her a big signing bonus. This is far from a numbers-free process; sales figures must be examined, advances and sales projections plugged into P&Ls so we can see if we can actually turn a profit. But at bottom, these judgments are made by consulting my gut and by the seat of my pants, informed by an appalling amount of reading and a long time in the trenches. I am quite sure that the quickening excitement that a baseball scout feels when he watches a new prospect with a sweet stroke or a hopping fast ball is exactly the feeling I have when I start a manuscript and know—just know—that I am encountering the real thrilling thing. So I had a lot of fellow feeling for those scouts when they were essentially told that everything they thought they knew about how the game of baseball should be played was not only misguided but essentially irrelevant. Welcome to the dustbin of history. It could happen to any of us.
It is no secret that the frictionless connectivity of the Internet and the bottomless well of digital data available for drilling down has already changed our cultural production and delivery in radical ways. The music business has basically been flattened and remade almost from scratch by this sea change, and with the inexorable rise of e-books and e-readers, the publishing industry is next in line. The prospect is terrifyingly exciting. The other day I attended a data-driven, Power Point presentation by a forward-leaning publisher on the e-book revolution—its effect on our bottom lines, the rise of DIY publishing, the changed requirements and expectations of our digitally empowered audience. She was vastly impressive. She really knew her stuff. Shutting down my line editor’s impulse to insert “reader” every time she said “consumer,” I listened hard and thought harder about the implications for what I and my colleagues in other departments do. And at the end I could not shake the feeling that I was a piece of toast being talked to by a toaster.
Look, I really respect numbers and am not phobic about them. As a young editor I did hundreds of P&Ls by hand, with a calculator, gaining an invaluable sense of the financial underpinnings of our business. Henry James said the two most beautiful words in the English language are “summer afternoon.” Pace The Master, they are actually “earned out.” Or maybe “royalty check.” But numbers can mislead and numbers can lie. Every member of my generation remembers Robert McNamara “proving” through cooked body counts and arcane DoD metrics that we were winning the Vietnam War; alas, nobody told Ho Chi Minh. At this moment we are living through an endless recession caused in good part by toxic mortgage bonds devised by Wall Street rocket scientists, so-called, and rated Triple A by the clueless numbers crunchers at the ratings agencies. Both are examples of massive failures of judgment. Calculate, but verify.
“Post-human” has become a common term of usage among social thinkers who examine the ways that advancing technologies in all areas have shunted aside old-school human agency . In literary studies, the simple acts of reading and critical judgment are being replaced by Google-enabled data diving through vast corpuses of digitized literature and subliterature in search of things like shifting word frequencies and thematic reoccurrences that can quantify what used to be merely—merely!—comprehended. It is only a matter of time, I fear, before such techniques will be used to engineer books exquisitely calibrated in sentence length, vocabulary level, subject matter, and plot to the demands of the marketplace. It is not a great time to be a humanist.
But let’s round back to baseball. One of the literary highlights of the fall season has been the success of Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, about a baseball phenom at a small liberal arts college. I had the book in from its passionate agent, Chris Parris-Lamb. I certainly recognized the talent and freshness there, but for whatever reason never fully gave myself over to it. But that shrewd (yet somehow not yet grizzled) literary scout Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown did, winning the book with a bold bid and then championing it with every ounce of persuasion at his command. The result: a genuine bestseller and the launch of an important career. No editbot is ever going to be able to do that. And if it can, well, beam me up, Scotty.
By the way, the Oakland A’s finished third in the AL West standings this year, with a 74-88 record. Make of that what you will.