Weekly Musings: Marlon James, Gerald Horne, and the Styling of Academic Writing
This week I had the pleasure of attending book talks by two prominent scholars in their respective fields: Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings and Gerald Horne, author of Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary. It's a rare occasion to see two prolific writers back-to-back and the events got me seriously thinking about the styling of academic writing and the role/power of historical fiction.
As writers, our job isn't only to convey new information in a meaningful way but, more importantly, to challenge people to ponder questions of significance. I admire Horne for his ability to make connections - between people and events - that would otherwise go unnoticed. There's a relatively detailed section in his book describing how Robeson's acting career developed. While I had assumed it was because he was a gifted, hardworking actor (which he was), Horne describes the relationships with emerging playwrights - like Oscar Michaeux and Eugene O'Neill - and actors - like Ira Aldridge - that provided him with the opportunity to take lead roles and rise to international stardom. Had he not had those opportunities, Robeson may have been a professional football player or boxer. Historical context and relationships are infinitely important in our work.
Since hearing Marlon James speak about the influence of "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays" on his latest book, I've been contemplating the various ways we can write about people and places. James was particularly enthralled by Talese's ability to describe Frank Sinatra without actually describing Sinatra. I'm considering how I can incorporate this concept of writing about different aspects of people, places, and events indirectly through the people and environments with whom they interact.
I admire Marlon James and Gerald Horne for writing direct and to the point.
Exhibit A: the first two sentences in James' book: "Listen. Dead people never stop talking."
Similarly, Horne deviates from traditional historical narrative convention. Rather than describing Robeson's life chronologically, he spends the first chapter examining the highlights of Robeson's life and situating him within a larger context. Horne's objective? To demonstrate the long genealogy of Afro-American solidarity with international freedom struggles.
Both of these book talks served as a poignant reminder that I need to revisit some classics with new insight. Charles Dickens' Great Exceptions for his ability to convey complex, flawed characters (James) and the archives of early historians to understand their motivations for writing (Horne).
This post is part of the mini-series Weekly Musings where I reflect on some of the highlights from the week.