Why are there not more beards in snooker?

The Hurricane Alex Higgins in the heyday of snooker in the 80s

One of the most under-appreciated sports in the world is snooker. Hitting coloured balls around a table might look simple, but there is serious skill and talent needed to deliver a cue in a straight line. And despite seeming like it could be quite dull, snooker is pure poetry. The colours, the cloth, the control of the ball. The darkness of the snooker hall. The low hanging lights. The smell of the table. The dust of the chalk. The silence. Victory ultimately being little more than most things in life – down to chance.

Snooker entered the public consciousness in the 1980s with the televised matches of the World Championship on the BBC. Back in the days of Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor, and Steve Davis, the green blaze was often covered in a stratus of cigarette smoke while the players sat and enjoyed a drink between visits to the table.

The sport has changed a lot since those heady days. Whereas in the 80s players didn’t especially look after themselves, nowadays snooker players are focused on fitness, nutrition, and preparation.

And players appear to take pride in their appearance. Rarely do you see a player looking unkempt, scruffy, or dare we say it, bearded.

Stephen Hendry (on the right) with the bearded Ben Foster.

The latest thing in snooker is Stephen Hendry’s “Cue tips” YouTube channel. The noticeably well produced content from the 7-times World Champion includes Hendry enjoying a frame and a chat with a famous snooker player, sportsperson, or celebrity.

And a quick quip from Stephen Hendry about resting a bearded chin on an ash cue made me think about the history of beards and snooker.

Probably the most recognisable facial hair in the history of snooker is Willy Thorne’s wonderful walrus moustache. Ronnie O’Sullivan – arguably snooker’s greatest ever player – paid tribute to Willy with his own Coronavirus lockdown moustache in 2020.

Willy’s wonderful walrus

Moving to full beards, Rory McLeod sports quite impressive facial hair. And the young snooker player Jackson Page enjoyed some media interest in his beard when rising up the ranks at the spritely age of 15 years old. Mark Williams had a very full beard for a short spell a couple of years ago. But, just as I am writing this, I notice Northern Ireland’s own Mark Allen has grown a rather tidy looking short beard as he wins his first round match.

There are probably some obvious reasons for the lack of beards in the beautiful game of snooker. Here are a few that come to mind:

  1. Historically we might say that snooker is a gentleman’s game.
  2. Beards surely cause friction that impedes cueing action.
  3. Because other players don’t have a beard

Lets take these in turn:

Historically we might say that snooker is a gentleman’s game.

One of the main reasons why I enjoy snooker is the etiquette. There are certain rules – some written and some unwritten – that are followed: staying out of your opponents sight line, not being too loud when playing, acknowledging fluke shots, and, my personal favourite, no flatulence (never mind flocculence) when your opponent is hitting a shot.

And of course there is the dress etiquette. For the big events, like the World Championships, players are required to wear certain colours of shirts, trousers, and waistcoats. The importance of dress most likely extends to the hair on the face as well. Is it gentlemanly to not be clean shaven? Is shaving part of the ritual of preparing yourself to appear in formal arenas in front of formal crowds?

Billiard (and snooker) rules. To be taken seriously.

The most obvious answer is that beards surely cause friction that impedes cueing action

The standard technique for hitting a shot in snooker is to get as low as possible over a shot in order to see in as straight a line as possible though the cue ball towards the object ball. The way to do this is to rest the chin lightly on top of the cue. This doesn’t necessarily mean having to have an exceptionally smooth chin, but it might mean not having to feather a cue through unruly flocculence causing unwanted friction at the end of the face.

Arguably the greatest ever Ronnie O’Sullivan with his shaven chin on the cue

Because other players don’t have a beard

Despite the validity of the points made above with regards to beards in the context of the history of the sport and the playing of the sport, beards are primarily sociological. Put simply, beards are grown and worn for social reasons, be it to project a certain image of masculinity or to be seen as being part of a group. The most important point is that men grow beards for other men. So to continue on with that logic, if no one in a certain social group is growing a beard – and particularly if the hegemonic figure, i.e, the most powerful, respected, or feared within a certain group, is not growing a beard – then the rest of the individuals in that group will also remain clean shaven.

I wonder if Ronnie O’Sullivan was to go a step further from the Willy Thorne walrus and start growing a full beard would other players start experimenting with their facial hair as well?

There is no doubt that they’d all be cueing up (get it? Sorry!) to make sure they would also be seen with a beard just like Ronnie’s to prove they could be as hirsute as snooker’s best ever.

Close Reading I: Beginning with a crisis

I am currently in the throes of writing up my article focused on guilt and masculinity in the fiction of George Saunders. This week has been the final step of the first draft: close reading the appearances of the various apparitions in Saunders’ early short stories.

And I am suffering a crisis of close reading.

Close reading is often thought of as the primary practice of literary studies. Put simply, close reading involves the careful critical analysis of the workings of a text.

Cards on the table – it took me 10 minutes to write the “put simply…” statement above. And I think it is still problematic. And maybe that points to the issues that I have been having this week that have lead me to two questions: 1. what is close reading?; and 2. is close reading still relevant?

This crisis started with the close reading of Saunders’ texts. While I engaged in the performance, I started questioning myself in terms of the virtue of the activity. In other words, while using close reading to shape my argument, in a very meta-way I began to see the very particular decisions I was making in my interpretative analysis and I started questioning their validity and their ethics. I am offering new knowledge on Saunders’ texts, I am certain of that. So it is ethical in that sense. But I am also using particular moves that I know (from experience) are on a good day persuasive and on a bad day slippery. I was ignoring certain readings. I was by-passing certain characters. I was exercising that power.

Two further thoughts then came to mind. The first is to do with pedagogy. I teach literature in Norway to students with less experience of texts and literature. And we push hard the importance of close reading as part of the critical skills that the students need to develop. It clearly influences our pedagogical approaches at undergrad and postgrad levels. But I began questioning that approach. Do students need close reading?

The second thought is more positive. And that concerns the championing the practice of close reading, but this time in the context of my field of research: the role of literature in the critical study of men and masculinities. I think there could be something in establishing the act of close reading as a form of self-reflection when reading texts that either are explicitly exploring representations of masculinities; or, indeed, if we follow the thought of certain close reading scholars and look to the personal element that the reader brings to close reading, then the simple act of close reading should be considered an act of self-reflection, self-examination, and self-actualisation.

Am I not sure of my sudden questioning of close reading. I suppose John Guillory’s recent Professing Criticism (2023), Merve Emre’s essay on Guillory’s book, and the article “The End of the English Major” by Nathan Heller last month in the New Yorker are all still on my mind. 

Further things have happened since thinking about these questions so I feel a part two of this post coming. I am particularly interested in exploring what is contemporary about close reading. Stay tuned. And keep close reading!

Recommended further reading: A few ideas have come from Barbara Smith’s “What Was “Close Reading”?: A Century of Method in Literary Studies” (2016). A useful way in to the history of the practice of close reading during the 20th century and beyond.

Rejections and failures

I don’t think we talk about two things that are a constant in academia regardless of career stage: rejection and failure.

If you go to my CV page, you can see my list of publications. I have two monographs, a list of articles, and various funding successes. You can also see the positions that I have had.

What you don’t see are all the rejections. Rejections for jobs, rejections for funding, rejections for articles. I see them. In the white spaces.

For every job on my CV, I see the rejection letters, some mercifully quick, some hanging around until the last moment. Some that didn’t even come at all. I also see the jobs I started applying for but didn’t have the time or the energy to complete. Or the jobs I psyched myself out of.

For every funding application, I see the failure of trying to get people together to start a research group. I see the weeks spent trying to make sense of guidelines to make sure it’s what the readers will want. I see the rejection emails. I see the impact my disappointment had on those around me. Again, I see the funding ideas I psyched myself out of.

For every article published I see the rejections. Some by editors. Some by reviewers. Most by reviewer 2(!) I see articles that I re-worked and re-submitted. I also see articles that I just binned forever (looking at you Franzen!)

And rejections hurt. Here is a nice quote from a recent The Atlantic article by Rhaina Cohen:

Rhaina Cohen, “A Toast to all the Rejects,” The Atlantic

This post is inspired by a rejection email I received yesterday from a well known Irish poetry journal. I didn’t expect my work to be accepted, primarily as all my poetry submissions up to now have been rejected. But the rejection email itself spooked me. I couldn’t and still can’t make out if it is automated or authentic. The email was complimentary, as rejection correspondence sometimes can be, but it seemed more personal. I’m just not sure. I suppose this is all coming from the fact that they told me that my poem was nearly selected for publication and they referred to me as “a superb poet”. I’m not sure that’s true at all(!) So perhaps it is a template rejection email. But then would it not be somewhat irresponsible to be telling all rejectees how wonderful they are?

I think the key takeaway from dealing with rejection and failure is exactly that: how you deal with the rejection or failure. I have gone down both roads – self-doubt and self-criticism to the point of feeling unable to do anything for weeks or months; or, the opposite, feeling driven to prove that I can do this and I will do it (and sometimes I do succeed and sometimes I don’t). Neither path is right or wrong as they are both natural reactions. But the key is to recognise them as a natural reaction and to work with them accordingly. And then to move past them and beyond them.

If you are interested in reading more, this post makes me think of JOHANNES HAUSHOFER who posted his CV of failures back in 2016. You can see it here. He gives credit to Melanie I. Stefan and there are also other examples out there.

A more recent article in The Atlantic by Rhaina Cohen titled “A Toast to all the Rejects” is also worth a look. (If it is behind a paywall just disable javascript, reload the page, and it will appear in full. Remember to enable javascript after you are finished!)

Next step of my George Saunders’ research: ALA Conference 2023

I will be presenting my research on masculinity in George Saunders’ fiction this May at the 34th American Literature Association 2023 conference in Boston, U.S.A.

ALA 2023 at the Westin Copley Place in Boston

I’m sure this trip will prove to be a key step in the early stages of my Saunders’ project.

I will be presenting my paper “‘This is how I feel’: Shame and Masculinity in George Saunders’ fiction”. This paper will be based upon the research that I am doing at the moment, so it will most likely offer a brief critical overview of the current state of scholarly research on shame and masculinity, research that I conducted recently at the British Library in London; before moving on to some textual probing of Saunders’ texts to argue for the central role of shame in Saunders’ narratives of masculinity. I may well focus mostly on Saunders’ early fiction; but we will see how it pans out. I am working on this alongside another article on guilt, ghosts, and masculinity that I have written about here. So maybe, looking into the future, if I do focus on early Saunders’ fiction, these two articles could come together to be a first chapter of the Saunders masculinity monograph… We’ll see.

But shame itself is a highly charged topic – both in terms of its contemporary relevance but also in terms of its inherently gendered nature. Shame has been gendered as feminine by society, history, and literature.

There are many engaging books on shame out there. A good way in might be Peter N. Stearns Shame: A Brief History (2017). But if you really want to dig into shame, then it’s probably best to start with Helen Block Lewis’ Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971), working your way through Michael Lewis, Elspeth Probyn, Sara Ahmed (as well as Sartre, Agamben, and other philosophers philosophising), and then coming to Kaye Mitchell’s more recent Writing Shame: Gender, Contemporary Literature and Negative Affect (2020).

I’m pretty confident that shame (and guilt) will prove to be major pillars of Saunders’ writings on masculinity. It makes sense, right? Especially with Saunders’ empathetic narratives of those men who try their best while the workings of society force them to face the realities of their actions, their decisions, and their fate.

I am very proud to be presenting as part of the George Saunders’ society and the two panels have been set up seemingly effortlessly by Brian Jansen. I am looking forward to meeting the other Saunders presenters and maybe looking to future collaborations.

I’ll report back in upcoming posts on the progress of the paper and the Saunders’ project more broadly. Writing is all about momentum, so let’s keep it moving. We’ll worry about the direction it’s moving in later!

A new project? – Masculinity in George Saunders’ fiction

(If you are a new to my page – Welcome! – please check out my About, CV, and Publications pages)

One of the most enjoyed writers on the MA courses that I teach is George Saunders. And that is no surprise. As complex and clever (see: literary) that Saunders’ satirical stories might appear, I would argue that first and foremost to the reader they are accessible and, most importantly, affecting. This, of course, is part of Saunders’ “narrative empathy” that many scholars put forward as the defining feature of Saunders’ stylistics (see Kelly, Basseler, et al.)

Put simply, Saunders’ stories change you when you read them. You come to them as an interested reader, they take you in over the course of twenty or so pages, and they leave you a different person by the end.

And his stories are incredibly “contemporary” – in a number of ways – but certainly in terms of how they deal with a range of different contemporary issues: neoliberalism, technological advancement, healthcare, consumerism, obesity, the workplace, and many others.

There is one issue that is repeatedly overlooked however: masculinity.

And this is particularly striking when we take a moment to consider the extent to which Saunders employs first person male narrators, or how often his protagonists are men. And this is not intended as a criticism of Saunders; rather, very much in light of the project of the Critical Study of Men and Masculinities as a field of research, the aim is to argue that what I call as this “middle category” of masculinity – middle age, middle-class, middle-of-the-road men – should be identified and investigated in order to understand their place in the workings of society and the organisation of gender and masculinity.

And that’s what I am striving to resolve with this current project: masculinity in the fiction of George Saunders.

Over the course of the next few months, I will be dedicating the majority of my research time to Saunders. This includes two closely connected articles that I am working on at the moment and a conference speaking engagement at ALA 2023 in Boston. I will speak more about these in due course here on these pages.

This week in particular will be spent close reading key stories from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Saunders first collection of short stories. I’m struck by the fact that all but one of these stories is narrated by a male character, a trend that continues throughout Saunders’ fiction. Again, this is not a criticism; rather it should be regarded as an indicator of the necessity to finally approach Saunders’ superb stories as fields for further masculinity-aware investigation.

(If you are interested in reading more, then I recommend Hollie Adams’ article on masculinity and the American Dream in Saunders’ short fiction here.)

To finish, I’ll just say that for my own readings I am particularly interested in guilt and masculinity in Saunders’ works. And I think there is something there with how his male narrators reflect upon their guilt with the ghosts that appear before them. I think there is something in that.

I’m excited to spend time with Saunders this week and report back on these ghosts in upcoming posts.