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Gatekeepers and clubhouses

March 15, 2015
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This afternoon I was following two quite disparate conversations on Twitter, which both stem from one peculiar behaviour.

The first conversation concerned the Spen 20, a 20-mile hilly race held by Spenborough & Disctict AC, where a runner had been pulled out of the race by a marshal just 1.5 miles in for running too slow.

From the limited information available online, no cut-off time was mentioned in the entry forms. And, quite aside from that, 1.5 miles into a race is really, really early to force a runner to step aside.

The second was a conversation about this article from the Telegraph bemoaning the lack of commercial success of a Great Novel.

As a precis to the Telegraph piece, the journalist bemoans that ebooks tend to be genre fiction, and that there seems to be little commercial oomph behind highbrow literary fiction – here touted as books that are tough to read.

There’s a snobbery in both these cases – a kind of insistence that in order to validate your place in a particular club (be that running or reading), you need to be able to have jumped over certain hurdles. You need to have run a sub-60 minute 10k. You must have read Midnight’s Children. But of course you’ll be negatively splitting that race right? And naturally you’ll have a well-formed opinion on Joyce’s presentation of Ireland in Ulysses?

Is all this so different from some kind of frat-house initiation? Forcing people to run qualifying times at their local parkrun before they can be allowed to enter anything so auspicious as an amateur road race. Prescribing the 20 finest works of literary fiction from the last two centuries before letting someone read that new frothy beach book.

Are these barriers the best thing for our clubhouses? Are the gatekeepers up to the job? Because if you’re going to set these barriers – time, assumptions about quality and merit – you need to be comfortable with the implications: a lack of participation and general indifference. Is a race with 100 amateur runners all tracking 7-minute miles better than a race with 1000 amateur runners where the long tail of the field walks?

Participation is the only way to safeguard a future for the things we care deeply about. Without the succession of pop-fiction, publishers would never be able to produce the dense tomes of ‘quality’ fiction – for better or worse. Without the entrance fees of the hordes of runners, whatever pace they’re making, few races would ever be financially sustainable.

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