He was a critic, a novelist, a photographer and he counted among his confidants some of the most accomplished black literary figures of his day including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson. But Carl Van Vechten’s most notable role may have been the one he played as patron to the Harlem Renaissance. “Van Vechten,” writes Lynell George in her review of “Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance/A Portrait of Black & White” by Emily Bernard, “dedicated his life’s work to, as Hughes once put it, ‘all things Negro’ -- literature, theater, ragtime, jazz and blues -- nurturing art and alliances, but not without acrimony.” Bernard explores the question of whether his presence in this cultural movement was a gift or a curse: “[W]as he an insider or an intruder?” George’s review of this fascinating figure leads our Sunday book coverage.
Scott Martelle reviews Thomas Mallon’s new novel “Watergate,” (yes, that Watergate), and he frames the discussion by noting that to write history “the story needs only to be true” but to write a novel, “the story must be plausible -- an often more difficult thing to accomplish.” While many of us were alive and witnessed the broad outlines of the third-rate burglary that brought down a U.S. president, the novelist’s task here is to make it plausible. Does it work as fiction?
The notion of truth and fiction are at the heart of David Ulin’s fascinating critic’s notebook on “The Lifespan of a Fact,” John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book -- a discussion between writer and fact-checker -- on the issue of invention in the world of literary nonfiction. Central to the discussion is an essay that D’Agata wrote about the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from the tower observation deck of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere hotel in 2002. The piece was commissioned by Harper’s, then rejected and picked up by the Believer after details in the piece could not be verified. And that’s the jumping-off point for the discussion.