Reflections on the Surf Book
Any literate surfer out there is well aware that there is no shortage of written material about surfing available in print and online. The abundance of journalism, surf industry propaganda (often filed under “journalism”), B-grade novels, vanity press memoirs, blogs, and coffee table books centered on surfing is downright overwhelming. In fact, there are nearly 4,000 books about surfing available for purchase on a single internet bookseller’s site. If those weren’t enough to keep you busy (or distract you from whatever “busy” ought to entail occupationally), the WorldCat bibliography indicates that nearly 20,000 book-length publications—including theses and government studies—about surfing have appeared since 1960. Including narratives dating to the colonization of Hawai’i and less-disseminated international publications, the figure is significantly higher.
(Note: in comparison, baseball yields 33,000+ retail titles and 144,000+ total titles while football lists 48,000+ and 186,000+ titles respectively. Like ASP webcast statistics, the publishing numbers show that surfing may retain a more marginal character than many admit, especially when confronted with the numbers generated by mainstream commercial sporting endeavors.)
Though I’m impressed by the fact that I could hypothetically spend all of my non-working and non-surfing time reading about surfing if I so desired, I have to acknowledge that many surf publications are, well, bad. By “bad,” I don’t necessarily mean “poorly-written.” In spite of our Spicoli figures, the surfing world is a historically privileged and overeducated sector of sporting society and there are plenty of university-trained and naturally-talented wordsmiths among our lot. Rather, I equate “bad” to contrived, derivative, repetitive, and insincere narratives more built-to-sell than built-to-last. The exhausting quantity of titles amounts to a revolving door of predictable and expendable themes: “business, meditation, coming-of-age, history, lifestyle, religion, organic, inspiration, journey, how-to, drugs, travel, industry, professional, investor, founder, and co-owner” are the top keywords linked to surfing books.
Many surf titles have more in common than just these keywords.
Devoid of critical or narrative value. Fast commercial titles concocted by editors for consumption by (veritable) non-surfers. Piggyback rides on surfing’s larger marketability. Vain businessmen turned vain authors. Capitalizations on a retro, Western American iconography capable of selling everything from cars to dish liquid to laptops to religion to more books. Superficial and diffuse, these titles are collectively representative of the fact that surfing is more about commodity consumption than the act of riding waves or critically understanding the environments in which surfers operate. The sheer volume of publications is indicative of the bookselling power of surfing as primary subject matter or as supplement to broader commercial themes.
Departing from this indictment of surf-related narrative, I’d like to establish a position parallel to Josh Berry’s invective against corporate surf porn, only in relation to the surf book, a term whose versatility I prefer over “surf literature,” as it allows inclusion of all genres that include, address, or take place in the surfing world from novel to biography to history and narratives in which surfing occupies differing levels of centrality. Like Berry, I’m convinced that surfers and our mediation and interpretation of surfing practices are diverse and relatively meaningful. However, our literary production at large doesn’t wholly reveal our social complexity or our intimate connections to sport, environment, social spaces, and existential being. Instead, surfing’s saleability in the literary market has gradually reduced our narratives to erotic fiction, colonial chronicle, and self-help text.
This shift may merely reflect the prominence of some of surfing’s underlying foundational discourses–precisely those of eroticism, coloniality, and self-discovery–as problematic as they may be. The literary consequences are apparent.
If the inspired surf film battles surf porn, then the inspired surf book has to contend with awkward narratives about undressing waves. Composed by industry figures, aspiring journalists, bored entrepreneurs, and opportunist writers (and publishers) bitten by the surf bug over the last six decades, the quality of surf-related narrative appears to be riding the wave of the corporate surf video, away from introspection, critical discourse, and innovative aesthetics. For every outlier project of any quality (texts by Matt Warshaw, Krista Comer, and Thomas Farber come to mind), there is a proliferation of pseudo-historical industry memoirs and transparent commercial novels, respectively the textual equivalents of aerial clips interspersed with bikinis and the Hollywood surf blockbuster, admittedly flawed genres in our sport’s media evolution.*