Thursday, August 11, 2011

Witnessing Good Writers Become Better: T. Coates & C. Whitehead

I was *there* early on when Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead started taking big or at least decisive steps in their careers as writers. Granted, that doesn't have the same ring to it as saying I was court-side for some pickup games watching Jordan and LeBron before they were the Jordan and LeBron. But still, if you're into publishing histories of black writing, you take what you can get.

With Coates, I started following him on his first day in August 2008 over on The Atlantic blog. He was good back then and early on, which was one reason he was likely chosen to blog for the publication's site, but I would argue that he's gotten even better over the last few years.

He's continued writing on topics he covered early on (politics, Obama, music, etc.), but some things have changed. His writings on the Civil War, for example, are extraordinary. Also, he regularly turns a "conversation about race" into an opportunity to think more creatively and critically about popular news items. And TNC's active commenters/contributors - known as the Horde - have assisted in making him a writer with an awareness of diverse points of view, and the comments section for the blog serves as an engaging space for all kinds of provocative conversations.

With Whitehead, I picked up the paperback of The Intuitionist soon after it was released, which means I was about a year behind the book's initial debut in hardcover. After discovering Whitehead's work, I've followed his writings closely over the years.

Whitehead is rightly well known for being an "author who never writes the same novel twice." He's written books about an elevator inspector, a junketeer, a nomenclature consultant, "black boys with beach houses," and next, a zombie novel. His ability to come up with creative ideas, and his talents for telling a good story -- blues-inflected and all -- remain intact and have expanded.

I could go on and on regarding little bits and pieces with Coates's and Whitehead's writings that I find interesting, but that would only be good for further establishing my status as a black writing nerd. I'll spare you.

What's fascinating and perhaps instructive are considerations of the importance of external support in the lives and careers of these two black male writers. Coates's Beautiful Struggle and Whitehead's Sag Harbor reveal that having supportive, black nationalist fathers was important for their early development. Perhaps spending considerable time in NYC hasn't hurt.

Certainly having platforms and powerful backers -- a magazine for Coates and a major publisher and literary agent for Whitehead -- have been vital to ensuring that the writers' works received wide visibility. That visibility has often been followed by recognition.

The processes of witnessing good writers become better over time could perhaps coincide with watching select writers receive increasing levels of support.

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