In the Critics this week

Claire Lowdon objects to one novel on the Man Booker longlist, Ryan Gilbey talks female role models in Pixar's Brave and Jonathan Coe applauds Javier Marías’s attempts to reimagine the novel.

This week’s The Critics is a Summer Fiction Special that, if one is to judge by its opening image of three nude readers, aims to reveal all in contemporary literature, save, of course, for the small modesty provided by a carefully positioned book.

Sarah Churchwell finds no such constraint in Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, whose protagonist is a novelist primarly concerned with fucking his mother in law and “the fate of the priapic novel.” She concludes that “certainly people who like this kind of thing will find throughout Zoo Time an exemplary instance of the kind of thing they like”, but appears a little scathing of the fact that “the phallus is a semi-universal symbol for several reasons, one of which is that some male writers can’t seem to resist trying to stick it everywhere”.

Ryan Gilbey in his review of the film, Brave, is more interested in the focus, or lack there of, on the fairer sex when he remarks that “most animated features make no secret of favouring the Y chromosome”. As Brave is notably, and shamefully, the first Pixar to feature a female progatonist. Yet Gilbey believes that “it’s no footling matter for Brave to buck the trend by focusing on a mother/daughter relationship, even if gender idiosyncrasies are absorbed into a stock narrative about learning to be a team player.”

Though on the page Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, can occasionally be as fierce as Brave’s Merida, Sophie Elmhirst finds her to be a more reflective character. “You wonder if that mind of hers, as it goes about its gleaning, requires the rest of her to wait in repose until it is ready to spill.” Robinson's writing, bears “the care of someone who feels the place of every word in line. There are no assumptions either, particularly in her non-fiction: only the stubborn desire to hold up patterns of thought to the light and expose their holes.”

Claire Lowdon is less kindly to Nicola Barker's novel The Yips. Unimpressed at its place on the Man Booker Prize-longlist, she finds it inferior to the author's previous work. “Darkmans is a much tighter novel, with a strong narrative voice and a mischievous plot that manipulates the characters almost as masterfully as Nabokov’s Laughter in the dark.”

Jonathan Coe, however, admires Javier Marías’s attempts to reimagine the novel. “After the modernist revolution, most novelists blithely carried on as before, but a handful of writers have sinced applied themselves to the task of rebuilding things… and Marías’s lithe, unreliable sentences are among his contributions to this enterprise.” This art, combined with Marías’s ability to tell a good story, leads Coe to conclude that A Heart So White is “a novel to treasure.”

In other reviews Leo Robson uses Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; The Jump Artist to question the lofty ambitions of debut novelists, Talitha Stevenson examines John Banville’s Ancient Light and Jane Shilling reflects upon the dark arts of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate.

Matt Trueman, meanwhile, gives an early update on theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, where “audiences are won over by artistry, more than they are by art. After all if you’ve got something urgent to say, the middle of the world’s most crowded art’s festival is hardly the most effective platform. This year, however… the Fringe seems to be full of fighting talk.” He is particularly compelled by Caroline Horton’s Mess, which he describes as “kids’ show. For adults. About anorexia. The candyfloss and fairy lights aesthetic rubs against the subject matter brilliantly, as it manages to show the world as Josephine sees it. It feels light-headed and giddy. You can’t see the  protruding bones that cause her boyfriend to flinch but you know they’re there.”

Drawing our attention back to the main celebration this summer is Rachel Cooke's survey of Olympic broadcasting, which inspires in her “sudden love” and yet “something dark”, which occasionally “tips over into pure loathing. I refer, naturally, not to those taking part in the games, but to those covering them.” Her aversion is directed towards the likes of Gaby Logan and “John Inverdale, a man who reminds me strongly of a World of Leather sofa, so strangely unyielding and too squat for the space he is inhabiting”, but she adores Clare Balding. “Some people want to be on television for its own sake… Not Balding. It’s the sport she likes and the people who do it… Medal winners, you may have noticed, tend to kiss her, not the other way round.”

This week's Critics also features orginal poetry and fiction. A Kindness, a short story by Adam Foulds, explores a moment of charity, charming in it's unextraordinary nature, but echoing almost existentially in its setting of a bleak corner shop. A similar everyday vacuity reverberates in Emily Berry’s poem Nothing sets my heart aflame. “My crisis is relatively universal,” she writes, “every time I think a new thought I can smell an old one burning.”

To top everything off is Will Self’s accustomed penetrating wit as he tries to escape the tyranny of muzak, this “sonic sewage” of “soft rock music” “mind-control”, against which resistance is futile. “I thought I was about to be dragged away to some inhuman reconditioning unit, where, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, I would be subjected to muzak until I learned to love it. But this didn’t happen, because I was in just such a unit already.”

 

                                    

A man laps up some summer fiction (Image: Getty)
OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism