Study Guide

The Art of Fielding

By Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding Introduction

It takes years of training to reach the big leagues. You have to practice every day, sharpen your skills, and maintain your focus, keeping your eyes on the prize. If you're good enough, and maybe just a little lucky too, you might get a six-figure signing bonus with your favorite team and become a national sensation almost overnight. And hopefully you can do all this without the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs.

Now, replace "team" in our intro with "publishing house" and you basically have the behind-the-scenes story of author Chad Harbach and his 2011 debut novel The Art of Fielding, a book more famous for Harbach's blockbuster publishing deal than for the content itself.

We'll explain this way: how much would you pay for The Art of Fielding? $14.99 for paperback? $8.99 for a digital copy? Both prices are a bargain compared to the $650,000 Little, Brown, and Co. paid Harbach to publish the book. (Plus, we think Doubleday publishing would be better equipped to handle a book about baseball). That figure was one of the highest advances ever for a book without a vampire in it. And the only performance-enhancing drugs Harbach probably consumed were gallons of coffee to keep writing.

The Art of Fielding, which Harbach wrote over the course of nine years, was finally published in 2011. It follows a promising young shortstop named Henry Skrimshander. Henry excels at college ball and has the potential for a Major League deal, until he chokes and can't stop overthinking his game, putting his prospects at risk. It sounds like Henry has trouble getting used to fame and success (much like Harbach himself).

And "success" here is perhaps not the best choice of words. Baseball may be America's pastime, but Harbach's novel failed to reach the status of America's favorite book, selling just 142,000 copies in 2012. (Maybe it needed more vampires in it—or dragons… or vampire dragons who just happen to be boy wizards.) Given those figures, Harbach's huge advance raised some criticism, prompting B.R. Myers with The Atlantic to call the book a "hyped-up work" that "fizzles." But like the rivalry between Red Sox and Yankees, The Art of Fielding has a fair share of reviewers putting on a proverbial foam finger to cheer for it. Judith Shulevitz of Slate calls it an "oddly charming, upbeat" novel and compares Harbach favorably to David Foster Wallace.

In order to decide which team to root for, you have to watch the team play first—or in this case, read the book. So step up to the plate and take a swing at The Art of Fielding today.

What is The Art of Fielding About and Why Should I Care?

Whether it's to pitch a perfect game, have the perfect wedding, look like Barbie or Ken, or get the perfect photograph of a weasel riding on a woodpecker, everybody wants to do something perfectly. We can all identify with the drive to be the best. The central conflict in The Art of Fielding is man vs. himself, and the man who is most conflicted about his desire to be perfect is Henry. All his young life, he's been the perfect zero-error shortstop. And he thinks this is going to last forever.

Spoiler alert: it doesn't. After Henry's first error—a throw so bad it hits his teammate in the face—Henry crumbles faster than a piece of day-old coffee cake (and brother, that's crumbly). Henry's one error quickly snowballs into another, and another, until he's making more bad throws than good ones. So what does Henry do? Does he find a way to clear his head? Nope. He obsesses over his failure until he becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and quits. (At least he never cries, though, because we all know there's no crying in baseball.)

It's not all doom and gloom, though. Henry's journey shows us that, even if we never plan to pick up a baseball bat, what's really important isn't being perfect, but learning how to cope with failure. Does Henry ever bounce back? You'll have to read The Art of Fielding to find out. Just, you know, try not to beat yourself up if you don't.

The Art of Fielding Resources

Websites

Chad + 1
Chad Harbach co-edits the n+1 literary magazine (with more than one other person). Chances are if you liked The Art of Fielding, you'll find something similar in Harbach's magazine.

Seventh-Inning Stretch
Harbach's publisher seems to go with a less-is-more approach to promote the book on their website.

Shine a (Affen)light
How many books that are geared toward people older than 16 have dedicated fan sites? We can't think of very many. But Art of Fielding is one, with this thorough, fan-run site, updated even into 2015, four years after the book's initial publication.

Movie or TV Productons

Baseball on Sundance
If you never thought you'd see baseball on a network other than primetime broadcast or ESPN, the Sundance channel hopes to prove you wrong with their Art of Fielding TV series allegedly in the works, although still uncast as of June 2014.

Articles and Interviews

Let the Wild Rumpus Start
In this interview with The Rumpus, Harbach talks about a rivalry between MFA writers and NYC writers, and discusses his decade-long writing process for The Art of Fielding.

Play Ball
While The Art of Fielding allegedly isn't just a baseball novel, GQ's interview with Harbach opens with a little sports chat.

The Longest Game
Harbach says he didn't work on any other novels in the nine years he took to write The Art of Fielding, making this the longest baseball game ever.

Video

Good Game, Mate!
Chad Harbach says g'day mate (not literally) at the Sydney Writers' Festival.

Harbach's Habits
No, Harbach isn't the slowest writer ever. He didn't literally take ten years to write this book, but he wrote it on and off over the course of a decade.

The Art of the Book Festival
Nashville isn't all country music. It has time for authors, too.

Audio

The (Gay) Marriage of Figaro
Affenlight rocks out to this sweet Mozart classic while he's driving and thinking of Owen.

The Variety of Life
Harbach talks about working in his love for baseball and Moby Dick (probably not at the same time like Owen) into one big book.

Baseball in the Lifeblood
With minimal chanting, Harbach discusses the mantras he wrote for The Art of Fielding within The Art of Fielding.

Images

Cheese Ball
Wisconsin is describe as a "baseball glove" (1.2) with Westish College being in "the crook of the baseball glove" (1.2), putting it near Green Bay.

World Series
This foreign cover for The Art of Fielding looks a little more exciting than the simple U.S. design.