Author Michael Lewis: "We're too well read"

June 2nd, 2009

By Dan Fleschner | TODAY

Nonfiction writer Michael Lewis is the author of, most recently, “Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood.”

He is also the author of several best-sellers, including “Liar’s Poker” (1989), a semi-autobiographical look at Wall Street in the 1980s; “The New New Thing” (1999), a look at Silicon Valley during the Internet boom of the 1990s; “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” (2003), which helped revolutionize how major league baseball teams value players and their statistics; and “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” (2006), which profiled a wealthy family that took in a troubled inner-city kid and helped nurture him into one of the top high school football players in the country.

In this Q & A with TODAY producer Dan Fleschner, Lewis talks about his other work, his thoughts on the state of journalism and what’s he working on next.

Q: We’re six years removed from the publication of “Moneyball.” People are still talking about it, and it would appear that just about every team — to some degree — has adopted its principles. How would you assess its impact today?

A: It’s become conventional wisdom. The A’s have no intellectual advantage, as evidenced by their performance. There’s a shadow baseball team that would have been members of the Oakland A’s if “Moneyball” had never happened, but now those guys are more valued.

So now, it's less interesting to me. The interesting thing about the “Moneyball” idea is how it has now extended into other sports. And the concept gets richer and more complicated when it's a genuine team sport. Baseball is not a true team sport like basketball or soccer, cricket, rugby, football. Those sports are in virgin territory there. In baseball, from now on, the progress of understanding the game will be slower. The last holy grail is defense, but even for that, a lot of things have been learned.

But still, not every baseball team embraces it as fully as they could.

Q: Speaking of “Moneyball” and team sports, you recently wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine about the statistical revolution coming to basketball. And you focused on the Houston Rockets and a player they’ve deemed undervalued by conventional statistics, Shane Battier. My one issue with it, compared to “Moneyball,” was that it was harder for you to make the case because the Rockets wouldn’t share a lot of the statistics they used to back up their assertions about player value. Was that frustrating to you?

A: He gave me enough to do what I wanted to do — which was ask the questions. It would have been nice to know all the secrets, but I got enough. It wasn't going to be a rigorous statistical piece. They genuinely don't want people to know what they’re looking at.

Q: And I guess, since you point out that “Moneyball” contributed to the A’s losing their competitive advantage, the Rockets should be wary.

A: Right. The only reason the A's let me in is that they thought people [cared] so little … about what they were doing. They couldn't imagine anyone would care about what I wrote.

On the other hand, this was leaking out already. The Red Sox were rapidly becoming what they are in terms of following Sabermetrics. On top of all that, enough of all the intellectual property that they seized upon was in the public domain. The Rockets have created a lot more intellectual property than the A’s ever created.

Q: Are there more Shane Battiers out there in the NBA? And how does studying the exception to the rules of NBA selfishness help us learn things about the vast majority of players who are not exceptions?

A: Yes, there are more of them out there. The Rockets have generated a list of five, six, seven players who they thought were dramatically undervalued. And there's the converse — players who do well in conventional stats who are overvalued. I think the thrust of the story is that what's going to happen in basketball has happened in baseball. A wand will be waved and a new system will be put in place on how to value players. The Rockets will tell you that everyone in the NBA is at least slightly misvalued.

Q: Back to “Moneyball” for a minute. When you were writing it, did you think to yourself, “Gee, this would be just perfect as a Brad Pitt vehicle, and we should get Stephen Soderbergh to direct”? [Note: The Hollywood version of “Moneyball,” starring Pitt and directed by Soderbergh, is set to begin production soon and is expected to be released in 2011.]

A: No. In fact, I didn't understand why they bought it for a movie in the first place. I thought “The Blind Side” would be a movie. And that's the one that comes out first — it’s shooting in Atlanta right now. I’m going down there at the end of the week to meet the actors, meet everyone working on the film.

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Q: What do you think of that?

A: I'm interested in it. I don't know what to make of it. I’m trying to figure out what's bad about it. The whole thing is a little odd, because I know the characters so well, and now they're not my friends — they’re Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw. It's stranger than if I'd written a novel, because there are these real reference points. Plus they’re filming it in Atlanta instead of in Memphis, where the book is set. They’re shooting there for the tax credits.

Q: When does it come out?

A: They’re aiming for a Thanksgiving 2009 release.

Q: Speaking of “The Blind Side,” how is Michael Oher’s head not exploding right now? [Note: Oher was one of the primary characters in the book.] To go from where he was when he started high school — illiterate, basically an orphan, barely equipped to survive — to a few short years later, a millionaire NFL player … how can he possibly handle that?

A: I think that his head is exploding. He has a really distorted sense of reality. What keeps him grounded is being in that family. He’s got a simple family life. He has a home base, and I think that helps a lot. And he so far has had a real gift for keeping himself — his life is always a small town. He was in a protected environment at Ole Miss, then he was drafted by Ravens — a well-run, buttoned-down franchise — not like the Raiders, for example — and he slid right in. So he’s back in a small world, and that makes a big difference to him.

Q: Let’s talk about something you haven’t written specifically about, and that’s journalism itself. Financially, it’s obviously in a terrible place right now. Newspapers and magazines have a commodity — information — that is at least in theory valuable to a democracy. Yet they are hemorrhaging money. Is this all happening because the people running “journalism” don’t know how to run an efficient business? Or are they just screwed by the times?

A: They’re screwed by the times. It's about technology, and this is a transition period. What is of value that newspapers do is not going to go away. It’s all going to migrate onto the Web. In fact, it is all on the Web. But they haven't figured out how to monetize that. But I don't think it's because of the incompetence of people who run newspapers. It's an unhappy accident.

Q: Do you spend much time thinking about what this all might mean for someone like you, who writes books and writes for magazines? What might all this mean for a career like yours in 5-10 years?

A: Yes, I do think about it. But there are a lot of questions to ask. One is — what does it mean financially? That is a little unclear, because all I have is the data that's under my nose — that I get paid more for each word now than I've ever been paid. So right now, it’s not affecting me, but that doesn't mean it won't down the road.

I also do other things. I write screenplays and give speeches for money and those won't go away. So I'm not panicked. But what I notice is how well read everyone is. I'm so much better read now than I’ve ever been.

When I published my first pieces for publication 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, if I published something in The New Republic, it might get a few readers who subscribe, and if it’s really good it might get Xeroxed and passed around. But now, the readership is vast and global. So that bodes well. I just assume that where there's demand, the world will figure out how to monetize that.

We’ve gone from being pleasantly well read to being too well read. Magazine pieces now are like books, they live forever on the Web. It's basically positive for a writer, but the financial stuff, I agree, is scary.

It's not my job to figure out how to monetize me. As long as I'm writing things for which there's a market, the rest will work itself out.

Q: Who and what do you read?

A: I read newspapers — online and in print. I read The New Yorker, The New Republic, Vanity Fair, The New York Review of Books. I’ve got a stack of books that I’m going through. Right now I’m reading a Patrick O’Brian novel, and I’ve got a book by Doris Lessing called “The Golden Notebook.” And I read stuff for work all the time. I’ve got a book by Justin Fox on efficient markets theory that I’m reading for my next book.

Q: And what is your next book?

A: I wrote a piece for Portfolio a few months ago called “The End of Wall Street.” It’s really about a character who saw this coming and put himself in position to make a fortune. There were a handful of characters who did this to give lie to the idea that nobody saw the financial crisis coming. They were sane men in an insane world.

Q: There are all kinds of people coming out now saying, “I knew this was going to happen!” Are they actually smart or just lucky? I mean, people make crazy predictions about things all the time.

A: Words are cheap, and people say all kinds of stuff. I’m not interested in those people. I’m interested in the handful of investors who completely rejiggered their lives to prepare for this. How much of it was luck? It’s a good question, and one I have to answer. But there’s a lot of written record about people seeing this coming, saying it was coming, and then doing something to prepare for it.