Because the action of many sports can resemble other art forms, such as dance or theater, many writers of serious fiction and literature turn their hands to writing about those they love best. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Jack London have been fascinated by boxing. Perhaps more surprisingly, so has Joyce Carol Oates, a fact made all the more surprising by her repeated insistence on the masculinity of the sport, its exclusion of women except tangentially.
Unlike, for example Bart Giamatti on baseball, Oates clearly states throughout On Boxing that boxing is not a metaphor for anything else; it simply is. Also, unlike the approach that many writers take when speaking of their favorite sports, Oates does not oversimplify her relationship to it; in fact, she does not even think of boxing as being a sport necessarily. For her, boxing is not about play, and her attraction to it is matched by a revulsion. The complexity of her feelings for boxing lead her to take a piecemeal approach to it, short jabs and quick feints as it were. Since, like baseball, she sees boxing as preoccupied with its own history, she puts it in historical context, though On Boxing is certainly not exhaustive in that regard. Rather, the ongoing human fascination with single physical combat is seen as an almost elemental acknowledgment of our essential physicality, despite our more spiritual, and civilized, pretensions. On Boxing is filled with examples of how Joyce Carol Oates finds, but does not necessarily resolve, the contradictions which riddle the sport.
Near the center of On Boxing, both physically and metaphorically, is Oates’ consideration of boxing from a writer’s perspective. She sees both activities as supreme acts of will in which the well being of the individual is set aside in order to achieve a wished for goal. For both the writer and the boxer, the final public display of accomplishment is only the end point in a long process. It is perhaps in finding a language that is equal to the activity in the ring that is Joyce Carol Oates’ inspiration here. There are moments of insight, brilliant turns of phrase, penetrating analysis. It is as if the ambivalence she feels for the sport necessitates a creative response to it. The average fan cheers; she is a writer, so she writes. She attempts to give voice to what she fears at the outset is beyond any ability to be expressed. On Boxing, if not always successful in that endeavor, at least goes the distance. It is up to you as a reader to render the final decision.