Monday, April 8, 2019

Yuval Taylor's "Zora and Langston"

Yuval Taylor, senior editor at Chicago Review Press, is the author of Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal and coauthor of Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop and Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. He has edited three volumes of African American slave narratives, and his writings have appeared in The Antioch Review, The Guardian, and other publications. He lives in Chicago.

Taylor applied the “Page 99 Test” to Zora and Langston and reported the following:
Near the bottom of page 99 of Zora and Langston is the following sentence: “When Zora invited him to join her expedition in her little old Nash coupe, nicknamed ‘Sassy Susie,’ Langston happily accepted.” You see, page 99 is the second page of chapter five, “The Company of Good Things,” the heart of Zora and Langston: a day-by-day and place-by-place recounting of the road trip they took through the heart of the South in 1927, a road trip that truly cemented their friendship.

Many of the book’s readers so far have remarked that this chapter is their favorite. Maureen Corrigan’s review of the book on Fresh Air is centered around the road trip, and Zinzi Clemmons, writing in the New York Times, calls it “the book’s most exciting chapter.” It is certainly the chapter that went through the most drafts. A very different version of it was published in the Oxford American, where it was subjected to the very different edits of three very different editors; and the book’s editor demanded more changes to it than to any other chapter.

Sometimes I’m an excessively concise writer (meaning that I leave out too much), but the edits that chapter five went through made me put in more than I’d ever imagined discussing. I was forced to do a good deal of somewhat tangential research in order to come up with details like “The car looked a lot like a Model T Ford, and could only seat two” (to quote from page 99), or the fact that there really weren’t that many “sundown towns” (where no black people were allowed after sundown) in the South in the 1920s—they became increasingly common later.

So in that sense page 99 is not that representative of the book. Chapter five is really unique. It’s the only chapter that takes place in the South, it’s more full of incident and incidentals than the rest of the book, and it focuses more on events and places than on characters and relationships.

So will “the quality of the whole” be revealed to someone who reads only page 99? Absolutely not. I fundamentally disagree with Ford Madox Ford. “The quality of the whole” of any book can only be revealed by reading the whole of it. Page 99 may provide a few clues, but judging a book by it is like judging a car by its hubcap.
Learn more about Zora and Langston at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue