There are some things that can’t always be explained. They can only be felt, eliciting less of a cerebral response than a visceral reaction.
Joyce Carol Oates, the 31st winner of the A.J. Liebling Award for Outstanding Boxing Writing, is the author of more than 40 books and novels, all of which are elegantly written and reflect a mastery of the English language that hints strongly at her scholarly academic roots. Since 1978, she has been on the faculty of Princeton University, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing.
But it is her occasional forays into boxing, most notably her critically acclaimed 1987 collection of essays, On Boxing, which have made her a lightning rod for both praise and criticism from an insulated, mostly male group that prefers to see only that which is good about the most primal of athletic endeavors.
At 77, Ms. Oates would appear to be an odd candidate to even harbor an interest in boxing, much less be one of its keenest and most analytical observers. She is slim, bespectacled and, to outward appearances, decidedly non-physical. British novelist Margaret Drabble recalls being “impressed that such a frail-looking person should have produced such iron work.”
Ms. Oates was introduced to the sport at an early age by her father, who subscribed to The Ring magazine and read and re-read each issue until it became dog-eared. Little wonder that at least some of his passion for fights and fighters was passed along to his insatiably curious daughter, who accompanied him to a Golden Gloves tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1950s.
“I asked him why the boys wanted to fight one another, why they were willing to get hurt,” Oates wrote many years later. “As if it were an explanation my father said, `Boxers don’t feel pain quite the way we do.’”
“Pain,” she added, “in the proper context is something other than pain.”
The daughter’s writings can, and often do, revel in the exhilaration she experienced in the artistry of, say, Muhammad Ali, whose skills once embodied what she described as “the genius of the body, the play of lightning-swift reflexes coupled with unwavering precision and confidence, (and which) eludes comprehension. All great boxers possess this genius, which scrupulous training hones, but can never create.” But even pugilistic geniuses can be players in a Shakespearean tragedy analogous to King Lear, a reality she considers to be “the mystic’s dark night of the soul, transmogrified as a brutal meditation of the body.”
The best boxing writing can often be as blunt as a left hook to the jaw. It also can be a source of deep meditation into a pain only those who step inside the ropes can fully understand, and whose redemptive qualities often foreshadow that dark night of the soul which await boxing’s most accomplished practitioners.