What makes a great story? What makes a great book?
Richard Cohen has some short and long answers.
As a working journalist for half a century, now, and head of a publishing house for 15 of those years, I can tell you: There are two questions I have to answer every day:
What makes a great story?
What makes a great book?
Of course, entire university programs and libraries full of books have addressed these questions as matters of art, craft, culture, language, politics, gender, race, economic status, anthropological legacy—and new perspectives are emerging.
What hooked me on Richard Cohen’s new book, Making History—The Storytellers who Shaped the Past, is the way he starts his 784-page exploration of these questions by focusing on the passions that drive authors’ zeal for the tough work of actually completing a book. His particular focus is the huge challenge of writing nonfiction, particularly “history.”
What drives men and women to research and write such books? Evans answers: “Rivalries of scholars, the demands of patronage, the need to make a living, physical disabilities, changing fashions, cultural pressures, religious beliefs, patriotic sensibilities, love affairs, the longing for fame.”
I read that sentence twice, then underlined it so I could easily find it again. In one sweeping list, Cohen had pretty much summed up the motives behind half of the emails landing in my Inbox, each week, as the founding Editor of Front Edge Publishing.
One of my goals in the course of 2022 is to write a series of columns—and participate in several podcasts as well—offering writers some helpful insights on these two questions that truly are existential for all of us who hope to keep reaching readers: What makes a great story? And: What makes a great book?
So, this is my first tip: Get a copy of Richard Cohen’s doorstop of a book and dive into the book’s 22 chapters, which explore themes as fascinating as “Creating the Bible,” “Creating a Nation’s Story,” “Versions of the Civil War,” “Truth-Telling vs. Patriotism” and “Journalists and the Recent Past.”
Here’s Cohen’s own summary of the pressing issues that authors face every day in trying to tackle the challenges of a book-length manuscript:
- How our accounts of the past come to be created and what happens to them after they have been set down
- How the use of sources—from archives to contemporary witnesses and the development of evidence (buildings, gravesites, objects) has changed through the centuries
- The nature of bias, its failings and, counterintuitively, surprising strengths, as passionate subjectivity in a historian, when combined with talent, can be a blessing
- The relationship of historians to governments and the demands of patriotism
- The role of storytelling and the relationship between narrative and truth
If that sounds a little academic—and the weight of this book at 784 pages seems daunting—I can assure you that Cohen himself is a very talented storyteller!
What quick evidence can I share to shore up that claim about his gifts as a raconteur? Well, here are three facts about Cohen that tell me this is a fellow I want to spend time with:
- As a long-time book editor in the UK, he edited much of the early work of John le Carré, Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis.
- Of the dozen Richard Cohens who have full-scale pages in Wikipedia—he’s the “Richard Cohen” identified as the “fencer.” No kidding! He was a five-time UK national saber champion, was selected for the British Olympic fencing team in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984 and wrote a history of sword-fighting, By the Sword.
- And he’s a master of telling a great tale in very few words. On social media, writing about one of his heroes, Winston Churchill, he wrote this micro-story: “The first time Churchill dialed a phone number himself he was 73. It was to the speaking clock, which he thanked politely.”
And speaking of Churchill: Deep in Cohen’s new book, on page 422, Cohen explains that the passion that drove Churchill’s relentless writing of books (43 in all!) was that his own startlingly amoral ancestors left him a famous pedigree and an empty bank account. Or, as Cohen puts it: “He was born both at the top of the tree and out on a limb.” That’s a line casually tossed into a larger paragraph about Churchill—but who isn’t tempted to steal such a delicious metaphor?
What else is in Richard Cohen’s new book?
Here are a few more gems that illustrate why I’m so enthusiastic:
DUSTING OFF HERODOTUS—In my undergraduate and graduate studies, I tended to avoid any course that made students read the likes of Herodotus, the ancient Greek “father of history.” (His bearded face is shown in stone in the second-from-left portrait on Cohen’s cover). Then, I read Cohen’s chapter arguing that Herodotus’s writing is still delightful even after nearly 2,500 years. As I read Cohen’s examples, I kept thinking to myself: Gosh! I must have missed those parts when I was forced to read Herodotus all those years ago! Now, I’ve actually pulled my nearly untouched volume of Herodotus off my library shelf, blown the dust off the top of its pages and I’ve added it to my reading list. That’s an accomplishment!
WHEN HISTORY ISN’T EXACTLY HISTORY—William Shakespeare helped to define the genre “history plays,” but Cohen points out that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were well aware of the legal penalties for offending the powers of their day. Playwrights and theater professionals understood that they were perennially skating on thin ice. Punishments could be life threatening. And, although Shakespeare occasionally pushed the boundaries, he also was savvy enough to obey censors’ dictates. The result were “history plays” that now are considered enduring literary and theatrical masterworks—even if they’re not factually accurate. We have those masterpieces today, because Shakespeare willingly leaned into the biases of his era. Sometimes, those biases even added to the drama or the comedy!
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW—Much of the world’s most powerful nonfiction is written by men and women who are reporting on events they witnessed, Cohen argues. And, as a journalist myself, I agree. While many great historians are of course exceptions to this rule—Doris Kearns Goodwin and Barbara Tuchman among them—it’s true that books written by journalists and other first-person observers often have an energy that distant observers like Goodwin and Tuchman cannot match. For example, the memoirs of journalist and war correspondent Martha Gelhorn are gripping because she was writing her prose while bullets were whistling over her head. In fact, Cohen argues that Gelhorn turned out to be a better reporter than her husband Ernest Hemingway. Readers of Cohen’s new book also are likely to discover other overlooked women, including Mary Wollstonecraft, a daring British woman who risked her life to report on the French Revolution while it was unfolding in France. In my own library, I already have several of Gelhorn’s books, but—as a result of Cohen’s book—I wound up ordering two of Wollstonecraft’s books from the late 1700s.
How can you resist this new book?
Certainly if you are a writer, this volume is an invitation to brew a cup of your favorite beverage, settle into a favorite chair and flip open a section that looks intriguing. That’s how I started Cohen’s book—and then wound up reading the whole thing cover to cover. As I read, I found myself, over and over again, grinning broadly—then turning down the corner of a page to be sure to share that gem with friends.
And that’s another thing I’ve learned about serious writers. We love to collect and swap such gems.
As a result, my copy of Cohen’s book looks pretty ragged with its dozens of turned-down corners, underlining and scribbles in the margins!
This new volume definitely deserves its place in that special shelf in your home “library.” You know the shelf I mean? Most writers have a shelf somewhere that includes books about writing, most notably Elements of Style, Eats, Shoots & Leaves and then perhaps books such as Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn, Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner, Watermark by Joseph Brodsky—and of course Homage to Robert Frost by Brodsky, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, which boasts four Nobel laureates packed into a single book!
Well, that’s just a sampling from my own “books about writing” shelf in my home library. Now, of course, Cohen’s dog-eared volume has joined these other classics.
What did we learn here?
So, this is the first “occasional column” I plan to share this year about what distinguishes great writers and great writing.
What have we accomplished here? I hope you leave this column with a few new insights:
- There are many passions that drive great writers—but all of them share some form of passion. It takes that all-consuming energy to tackle such an often-years-long process.
- Truly talented writers can hand us a two-sentence gem of a story—or a nearly 800-page world to explore. In fact, as an editor, I often challenge writers to capture a tale in just a couple of sentences to see if they understand the core of their story.
- The greatest writers make sure to leave “the good stuff” in the book, which is a tougher trick of discernment than you might think. If you’re working on a manuscript, stop and ask yourself: What have I left out that my readers certainly will want to know?
- Sometimes bias can turn out to be a blessing. As a journalist, I’m not casually advocating bias, but sometimes a writer’s perspective is crucial to the compelling nature of the manuscript.
- You’re more likely to write a truly engaging book if you write about something you know very well. How many times have you heard that venerable advice? We say it repeatedly because it’s simply so true.
- And, yes, you should ante up for a copy of Cohen’s new book. Making History is a flowing fountain of great ideas for writers and editors, as well.
Please, keep reading in coming weeks!
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