By Michael Miner
Letting Down the Guard
A Sun-Times headline the other day reminded me of the one about the grave robber and Beethoven's tomb. There sat the brooding titan, furiously scratching a dripping quill across his manuscripts, obliterating every last note of music.
"What do you think you're doing?" cried the alarmed plunderer, as the Sixth vanished in a black smear.
"Decomposing," said Beethoven.
The headline in the Sunday Showcase section was devoted to what it deemed the new wave of Chicago writers. "Move Over Bellow, Algren: Your Heirs Are Apparent," it said. Yes, but Bellow is 80 years old and lives in Boston. Algren died in 1981. He hasn't moved since and doesn't intend to.
A couple of weeks earlier I'd picked up the spring issue of a new quarterly called Chicago Books in Review. A column by senior editor Connie Goddard had begun with an almost identical headline: "Algren's dead and Bellow doesn't live here any longer." Apparently the point needs making.
Goddard began her piece by recalling a luncheon a while back with a books-beat big shot she decently did not identify. "I mentioned that there might be a story in how it was that of the year's four Carl Sandburg Award winners two were Hispanic, one black, and one white. I also pointed out that blacks and Hispanics are predominant among innovative, literary publishers in town, as they were among Chicago writers causing the most national stir--Leon Forrest and Sandra Cisneros, for example. Was there possibly a trend here? Might the vitality of writing and publishing in Chicago now come from 'minority' communities?
"My luncheon companion didn't show much interest in my thesis. Instead he talked about Saul Bellow's departure for Boston and what that meant for literature in Chicago. Not much, I'd say, but soon thereafter, a lengthy bit of breast beating about Bellow's leaving appeared under his byline."
Lloyd Sachs wrote the Showcase piece. The "heirs" of the headline turned out not to be a frisky herd of Gen Xers who'd stampeded onto Chicago's literary scene and trampled Bellow underfoot. "Literary scene" is an oxymoron, Sachs's somewhat poignant survey suggests, and most of the writers he listed have toiled for years in celebrity's backwaters. They're "mostly in their 40s and in some cases now living away from Chicago--but still writing about it," Sachs reported, and their "dean," Stuart Dybek, is 53. What Sachs did was to notice them noticing Chicago.
Sachs focused on an address by Columbia College professor Fred Gardaphe last December when the Modern Language Association met in Chicago. Gardaphe had drawn contrasts between yesterday's "Chicago authors" and today's: the immortal old guard (going back to Dreiser, Sinclair, and Sandburg) were newcomers awed by the big city, while the new crowd grew up here and works its ethnic crannies. Rounding out Showcase were a piece by books editor Henry Kisor, "Homegrown Writing Not Just Narrow Realism," and brief profiles of Dybek, Tony Ardizzone, Ana Castillo, James McManus, and Maxine Chernoff. Though Chicago may sustain them spiritually it hasn't lined their pockets, and Sachs noted that Chernoff now teaches in San Francisco, Dybek in Kalamazoo, and Ardizzone in Bloomington, Indiana.
Chicago Books in Review, in a piece by John Lillig, did its own reporting on Gardaphe's address. "The Sun-Times piece mentions only one writer (Stuart Dybek) not mentioned in either Lillig's piece or mine," Goddard wrote me, after pondering the similarities. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, hence we are thrilled....We're amused, not angered, and I've written to both Henry Kisor and Lloyd Sachs to let them know."
Sachs wrote Goddard back politely disabusing her. "The idea for our story came back in December," he told me. "One of the things that set this story in motion was, Nigel [Wade] had seen coverage of this thing at the MLA, Fred Gardaphe talking about this new breed. If there is a new breed, who are they, and why don't we identify these people?" Wade had asked a good question, one perhaps most likely to be raised by somebody from London to whom all local names but a few are new, on behalf of readers and booksellers to whom all local names but a few are inconsequential.
At a dinner party some years back a cluster of supple young minds grappled with the state of American literature. Hemingway is passe, a newly minted novelist declared. Others agreed. His grip is broken, someone else offered. He's not a writer who matters anymore.
"On the other hand," I finally ventured, "Hemingway is the writer we've been sitting here talking about for the last half hour."
Who would that writer be today? Not Bellow or Algren--the yearly blowout by Algren sentimentalists notwithstanding. Those two warhorses can't yield ground they don't hold.
"Once you get into the modern postwar era, who are the guys going to be?" Sachs argues. "Bellow and Algren. Those are the dominant figures. Who else would you come up with? Although looking at it, I notice we had Bellow before Algren and she had Algren before Bellow. So we were making a very different statement.
"When you talk about the arguable tag of 'Chicago fiction' those are the guys who come up first. You might say Richard Stern, but people don't know Richard Stern like they know these guys. Leon Forrest is a master, but unfortunately his readership is pretty slim."
Stern and Forrest would be old masters of the local literary scene if there were a local literary scene. Perhaps there isn't one simply because journalism couldn't be bothered to invent one. Now it's trying to. Chicago Books in Review was founded over the winter by book collector Robert Remer with the assistance of Goddard, a literary agent who used to be the Chicago correspondent for Publishers Weekly.
"There's a huge amount of writing going on in Chicago and Illinois, especially a lot of self-publishing and small presses," Remer told me. "We had 130 or so books mentioned in the spring issue. There's enough material that we could do this monthly."
"What Chicago Books in Review is doing," Goddard said, "is granting a sense of celebrity and significance to people doing thoroughly professional work in Chicago, who in other cities would be getting recognition, but because they live in Chicago aren't."
Remer told me he published 55,000 copies of the spring issue and took them around to about 600 city and suburban locations--"Libraries, bookstores, coffee shops. Basically we want to go where book buyers and readers will be."
Remer collects Algren and owns a complete set of Algren first editions. "He was one of the greats of his era. But eras change."
Well, I think we're out from under," said the president. He tossed the New York Review of Books onto the coffee table and got up to put on his sweats. "Garry Wills said we didn't do it, and Garry Wills is a paragon of intellectual probity. If Garry Wills had come down on us like a ton of bricks it'd be time for us to pack our bags for Little Rock."
"Us?" said the first lady. "Our?"
"You can't stay here alone," teased the president.
"Little Rock?" said the first lady.
"Athens of the Ozarks," said the president, who still had no idea how deep some feelings run. "This whole Whitewater business is a tar baby the Republicans are going to wish they'd never touched. No one understands it. The ones who say they do, like Al D'Amato and Kenneth Starr, smell like dead fish in a sewer pipe. The ones like Wills who really do say we're clean as a whistle."
"Whitewater is not just about breaking the law," the first lady reminded him.
"No it isn't," said the president gravely. "It's about character. And the worst thing about it's been this drip, drip, drip of contempt for the president's character. The question Wills finally settles is whether once upon a time an ambitious young man and his shrewd young wife saw their opportunity and took it. What Garry Wills points out is that there was no opportunity. We lost money on the deal."
"Because neither one of us knew a damn thing about real estate."
"Neither one of us knew a damn thing about real estate, and we didn't pay a damn bit of attention to what Jim McDougal was doing. We were dumb as mules, but we didn't break the law, and I didn't abuse my office for private gain. And now that Garry Wills has said so we can ride it out."
"I'm sure we can," the first lady said. "You and I have ridden out a hell of a lot worse."
Sometimes when the president had a pretty good idea what the first lady was driving at he had to let it sail on by. "I've been ridiculed, and you've been ridiculed," he told her. "People who hate us for the good we mean to do pointed to Whitewater and called me a flimflamming hillbilly who threw around his authority for private gain. A lack of moral fiber was perceived. Domestically there were those who wondered who ruled the roost."
But now it was all behind him. He felt like a jog.
"I found this letter on your night table," the first lady said.
There was a brief surge of panic until the president remembered how upright he'd been lately. He took the paper from her and studied it. "Yes," he said, "these are the words of a man of character raising his voice to protest the wanton abuse of unelected authority."
She read aloud. "Dear Judge Harold Baer. You disgust me. The American people are fed up with bleeding-heart-liberal judges who never spent a day of their life in a squad car and are mollycoddling the vermin who inject poison into our children's veins. Eighty pounds of drugs speaks for itself. Either admit that stash as evidence or clear out. Criminals belong in jail, not on Oprah! Appointing you was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life, and I'm not too big to admit it. Signed, 'A concerned citizen.' With copies to the AP and New York Times."
"That came from the heart," he said. "You don't put your conscience in trust when you take this job."
"How about signing it, 'Commander in chief of the army, navy, air force, and elite special operations units trained to assassinate with untraceable poisons.'"
"You're being facetious, and this is a serious matter," the president replied. "I've learned the hard way that in this job all you've got is your dignity."
The Defender's Offense
A couple of weeks ago the school-reform group Designs for Change issued a report card giving "the Mayor and his school system leadership team" straight Fs for their performance in preparing for next week's local school council elections. Designs for Change, which claimed it was "working fervently to help Mayor Daley reach his stated goal of 10,000 candidates," ripped City Hall for "repeated neglect and bungling" that had "systematically undermined the candidate search to date, reflecting either pervasive incompetence or an effort to sabotage" the LSCs.
This wasn't the first time Designs for Change had complained about the search process. The Tribune ignored the new outburst. The Sun-Times ran a piece, in which, I suppose, a venial sin was committed. The article gave slightly less space to Designs for Change's criticism than to the tart response by schools chief Paul Vallas. And Vallas got to sound off first.
When the Chicago Defender weighed in three days later Vallas didn't speak at all. Though giving Designs for Change short shrift, the Defender rounded up other critics of the LSC candidate search process who spoke unchallenged and uninterrupted. Vallas was finally mentioned by name in the last paragraph.
Three more days passed, and the Defender returned to the LSC elections with an article that was even more one-sided. The LSC nominating period had just ended, a late surge of candidacies had made the numbers look much less embarrassing to the city, and now Vallas got to fire at will. In a mangled but vivid metaphor he denounced Designs for Change as "Monday morning armchair quarterbacks, jumping the gun before the game gets started....They'll attack anyone who's bringing change to the system."
At this point Hot Type heard from a frequent correspondent who'd come across the second Defender article and nominated it as "a great example of incredibly poor journalism." (1) Designs for Change didn't get to defend itself. (2) The Defender didn't bother to report whatever it was the group had said a week and a half earlier that got Vallas so steamed.
So what is balance in a newspaper? You can try to strike it in a single article, as the Sun-Times did, and stand accused of not quite succeeding. You can strike it as the Tribune did by writing nothing at all. Or you can be like the Defender and slant one article one way and the next article the other. In the sweep of time maybe things even out.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.