Tuesday, April 17, 2018
April 17, 2018: NeMLA Recaps: West of Sunset and Historical Fiction
[This past weekend was the 2018 Northeast MLA convention in Pittsburgh. It was a great time as usual, and this week I’ll highlight some standout moments and conversations. Leading up to a weekend post on how you can get involved in this great organization!]
On two takeaways from our inspiring opening night creative event.
As illustrated by Monique Truong’s opening night reading at my 2016 Hartford convention, NeMLA has featured an impressive opening night creative writer and event for many years. But beginning with this year’s convention and going forward we’re trying something different: “NeMLA Reads Together,” where all attendees are asked to read a particular creative work (for the 2019 Convention in Washington, DC it’ll be Imbolu Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, of which we handed out free copies at Sunday’s membership brunch!) and then we invite the author for that opening night event. Our first text was Stewart O’Nan’s wonderful historical novel West of Sunset (2015), an account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s challenging and compelling final years of life working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and for Thursday night’s opening event our NeMLA Board member Christina Milletti masterfully interviewed O’Nan about his book and many other topics.
O’Nan’s as talented and engaging of a storyteller as you would expect if you’ve read any of his books, and the entire event was both fun and thought-provoking. But I would highlight two particular takeaways about historical fiction as a genre and what it can help us see and understand. Anyone who’s read this blog (or my latest book) knows that I’m a big historical fiction fan, and especially that I believe it can help us engage with the past at least as fully and meaningfully as any non-fictional genre or educational setting can. In describing his own historical subjects, O’Nan very clearly laid out one of the main reasons for that possibility: that historical fiction can investigate and portray histories and stories for which there simply aren’t enough documentary evidence for other genres to engage. In his final Hollywood years, Fitzgerald was living in the same apartment complex as both Dorothy Parker (with whom he had had a previous romantic affair) and Humphrey Bogart, but relatively little is known for certain about their interactions during this time period. That might limit historians or biographers, but it offers instead an opportunity for O’Nan, and he takes advantage of it to craft portrayals of Parker and Bogart (among many others) that to my mind are both true to the details of these figures and help us consider their identities in historical, cultural, and contemporary contexts.
I would also argue that the O’Nan event offers a potent lesson for those (like me) working to produce public scholarship that engages American readers and contributes to our collective conversations. O’Nan’s wonderful skill as a storyteller doesn’t just reflect his fictional talents or make for good listening during a conference event (although yes on both counts); it also and crucially draws us in to nuanced biographical, cultural, and historical topics and questions. In the course of the interview O’Nan discussed such difficult and thorny topics as Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, his wife Zelda’s bipolar disorder, and gender images and limitations in early 20th century Hollywood and America. His emphasis on storytelling didn’t in any way minimize or make light of these challenging topics; quite the opposite, it allowed him to draw us into their details and specifics, a vital first step in any sustained engagement with any such topics or their broader contexts and meanings. For too long, scholarly writing was generally seen as antithetical to (or at least entirely distinct from) narrative or storytelling; I believe that those attitudes are shifting, that we’re collectively beginning to recognize the vital role that story plays in connecting to and engaging audiences, and that had certainly better be the case. As O’Nan proved, stories are a crucial part of connecting audiences to any and all histories.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. NeMLA responses or thoughts? Other organizations or conferences you’d highlight?