Who is missing ? A-list author sparks anger with ‘too white’ story | history books


It took nearly a decade to research and write, and is over 750 pages. Corn The story makersdescribed as “an epic exploration of those who write about the past,” was itself rewritten after its author failed to consider enough black historians, scholars, and writers.

Richard Cohen was asked by his editor to produce new chapters and expand on others after failing to sufficiently acknowledge the role of blacks and African Americans.

“It had to do with the editor’s sensitivities,” says Cohen, who previously wrote the much-loved chasing the sun and How to write like Tolstoy. “I was then asked to write more and I did about 18,000 more words.”

The History Makers is to be published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Now, despite the rewrite, publication of the book in the United States has been canceled, according to sources in New York. Cohen’s contract with Random House in America was signed a few years ago and sources say it’s worth around $350,000. Yet after researching the changes on black history and historians, the publisher drastically backed out of the deal last Wednesday. Cohen’s wife, America’s leading literary agent Kathy Robbins, is urgently looking for a new publisher in the United States.

The story makers is still to be published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on June 25, with preliminary reviews by Hilary Mantel and Amanda Foreman, followed by book serialization on Radio 4.

Questions have been raised about why Cohen – who was a top publisher in the UK before moving to New York 20 years ago for a second writing career – left out so much black history in the first project. The teaching of black history in American universities is an integral part of the curriculum, while Black History Month has lasted for half a century.

Cohen’s book is described on its publisher’s website as ‘an epic exploration of who writes about the past and how the biases of some storytellers continue to shape our ideas about history (and who we are) today’ today”. It runs the gamut over 2,500 years, from Thucydides and Tacitus to Shakespeare, Gibbon and Voltaire, before ending with television historians, such as Simon Schama and David Starkey.

“Black history has been unwelcome in history,” says British historian David Olusoga. “Black people have been invisible in history.”

Until the rewrite is sought, The story makers was above all a Eurocentric book. “But that’s how it happened – as if Africa and African Americans had been forgotten,” says Hakim Adi, professor of African history and the African diaspora at the University. of Chichester. “It’s denigrating the history of the world, and black people in particular.”

To make amends, Cohen, who used to edit Jeffrey Archer’s early novels, greatly expanded his chapter on the American Civil War, including the story of Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who later wrote five volumes of historical memoirs. It has an all-new chapter, Who Tells Our Story, largely about black people in the United States over the past two centuries, including educator Booker T Washington and WEB Du Bois, the sociologist, historian and movement leader Niagara, who sought equal rights.

Richard Cohen.
Richard Cohen, author of the new book. Photography: Woody Campbell/Simon & Schuster Publishing

To counter criticism of the lack of African historians and writers, Cohen added Leo Africanus, a 16th-century Berber who wrote the histories of the Maghreb and the Nile Valley. Some say this convert from Islam to Christianity was Shakespeare’s inspiration othello.

More recently, there is Henry Louis Gates, an influential American television historian and author, who also rediscovered Our Nig written by Harriet Wilson, the first African-American novelist; and Toni Morrison, whose books, such as Beloved about a family just after the Civil War, were often historical.

Even with its rewrite, Cohen’s book does not directly include the history of Windrush, but examines the West Indies and England through Trinidad-born CLR James’ book on cricket, beyond a border.

“In Britain, in particular, black history has largely been seen in the context of imperial history and often lies,” says Olusoga. “Black history has also been delegitimized and deemed political or grievance-related. There was this determination to keep him marginalized.

Cohen seems more assured of the influence of historical novelists including Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, whose A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch was essentially about her own experience inside the gulag, as well as British authors such as Mary Renault with her stories of ancient Greece and CS Forester with her Hornblower heroisms in the Napoleonic Wars.

Another chapter, Bad History, highlights some of the dubious “facts” written by writers like Julius Caesar, who gave a very biased view of his own achievements, and Shakespeare, who is probably responsible for more inaccurate versions of historical figures. , especially monarchs, than anyone else.


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