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Making a Scene

Would a few more cocktail parties make Chicago the literary center it ought to be?

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Saturday, November 2, 8 PM: Two 30-ish men near the bar at TBA Exhibition Space in River North tipped their plastic shot glasses of Scotch toward each other. "To, uh, literature," said one. "Yeah," said the other, and they drank up.

They and about a hundred or so other Chicagoans had just huffed up three flights of stairs to the gallery to attend a party in honor of Aleksandar Hemon, whose first novel, Nowhere Man, was published by Doubleday's Nan A. Talese imprint in September. It was hot already, and as the long, narrow room filled up, it got hotter. The smokers huddled by the south windows, which were open a crack; most everyone else stuck close to the bar, where a six-foot-four man in saddle shoes and a horizontally striped tie was doling out bottles of Bud and the aforementioned Scotch.

"That tie's so Bret Easton Ellis," said one guest, gesticulating with his beer. "Really?" said the tall man. "I was thinking it was more late 90s."

There was no music, and there were no chairs. In the middle of the room, folks in their good sweaters clustered around a table stacked with copies of the book. Money changed hands, and around the perimeter guests leaned against the white walls and read.

Hemon's previous book, The Question of Bruno, a collection of short stories and a novella, came out in 2000. Before that, he was an unknown, a Bosnian writer and editor who'd come to the U.S. on a cultural exchange and got stuck in Chicago when war broke out in 1992. He'd taught himself English while working a series of low-wage jobs, shivering through the winters in an Uptown apartment. After Bruno was published (also by Nan A. Talese) he was compared to Nabokov by the New York Times and Conrad by the New Yorker. Now he's a star--or as big a star as a writer can be in Chicago without being Scott Turow. Bruno was eventually published in 18 countries and won several literary awards, and in the last two years Hemon's fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Esquire, and the Paris Review. Nowhere Man elaborates on the novella from Bruno, about Jozef Pronek, a young Sarajevan who visits the U.S. and gets stuck in Chicago when war breaks out in Bosnia.

A year and a half ago Jay Reed--the tall man in the Bret Easton Ellis tie--sent Hemon a fax. Reed, 31, grew up in Montana, played college basketball for "about ten seconds" after high school, and got a degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1996. In 2000, at the beginning of his "I-have-to-do-something-with-myself years," he launched an eclectic Web zine called Weep, which published book reviews, cultural commentary, essays on art, literature, sports reporting, and whatever else struck his fancy, and threw the occasional reading (in February 2001, for example, after McSweeney's Books published Lawrence Krauser's first novel, Reed brought him to town to read at the Division Street Russian Baths). He wanted Hemon to participate in a summer literary festival he was planning. The festival never happened, but the two became friends.

The health of Chicago's literary life is one of Reed's favorite topics: The papers don't run book reviews, or don't run enough of them. Though Columbia College, the School of the Art Institute, UIC, and Northwestern all boast high-profile writing programs, there aren't enough publishing jobs to keep all the aspiring novelists afloat once they graduate. Authors on book tours don't stop here, and when they do, more often than not nobody shows up. "There's a crippling balkanization between those who write, publish, and read," Reed carps. "Everything is smaller compared to a place like New York or LA, and when you compare it to places like Seattle or Minneapolis that draw bigger crowds to noncelebrity literary events, Chicago is an appalling place for a literary community."

This summer, driven by the desire to do something about this sorry state of affairs, Reed reinvented his Web site as a nonprofit called Weep.us; his first project was to create a listserv, Chicagolit.org. It's open to booksellers, publishers, magazines, universities, and arts organizations; members can use it to send announcements of literary events to the 500 or so subscribers around town.

"I was talking to Sasha's editor, and he asked me about other stuff that we do or any other help he could be," says Reed. "And kind of on a whim I said, 'What about some sort of a thing for Sasha?' Not like a reading or something--let's have a party.'"

Reed cooked up a guest list of 60 writers, publishers, editors, and assorted local notables, including Alex Kotlowitz, Ira Glass, and Studs Terkel. (Terkel couldn't make it--he was accepting an award at the Chicago Humanities Festival--and neither could Glass, who was covering the ceremony.) He got Thomas Blackman Associates to let him use the gallery space for free, corralled artists to hang their work on the walls, and promoted the event to the general public as well as industry types. Doubleday kicked in some money for the booze, and Reed covered the remaining costs out of pocket.

Around 8:30 Reed called for quiet. He thanked the throng for coming and introduced the three people standing to his left: local writer Elizabeth Crane, whose first short-story collection, When the Messenger Is Hot, is due from Little, Brown in January; Steve Tomasula, an assistant English professor at Notre Dame whose novel VAS: An Opera in Flatland will be published by Station Hill Press ("It looks fantastic," said Reed. "I, uh, haven't read it yet."); and Hemon.

"He's from Bosnia," said Reed. "He's written two books."

"Thank you all for coming," said Hemon. "This is my hometown now, and it's touching to see so many friends."

He began to read from a chapter of the novel set in Kiev in 1991. The idea was that Hemon would read the part of the protagonist and Crane and Tomasula would chime in as the supporting characters. In practice this was a little rocky, and after Crane blew her entrance and then stepped on Hemon's next line the audience cracked up. "Raise your hand," interjected Reed, "if we should stop right now and start drinking."

But reading from a later section, in which Pronek meets the Chicago woman he'll fall in love with, Hemon and Crane established a brisk rhythm.

Hemon: "Why do you call yourself evil?"

Crane: "E-V-O-L. Love in reverse. It's a Sonic Youth album, my favorite."

Hemon: "I never listened them."

Crane: "Listened to them."

Hemon: "Listened to them."

Crane: "It's kind of noisy, a lot of guitars."

Hemon: "I used to play the guitar."

Crane: "Well, this is different."

This brought down the house.

Five minutes later it was over. There was clapping, and then the smokers drifted back to the window and the drinkers headed for the bar.

Among the former was Michael Workman, who edits and publishes the independent literary journal Bridge. Like Reed, he's frustrated with the scene he's trying to build. "The literary community in Chicago? It's a feeble one," he said. "It's hobbling on, like, two broken legs."

Bridge started hosting periodic readings and lectures at the magazine's event space on Peoria earlier this fall; he thinks Chicago needs more events like the Hemon party to get the scene up to speed. "[Review of Contemporary Fiction founder] John O'Brien said it pretty well. He said, 'Literature is the only rat race where you never see the other rats,'" Workman said. "And it's true--you don't really get to find out what your contemporaries are thinking about or working on." The cocktail parties and dinners and readings, he added, are where "you get to learn what people writing creative fiction are thinking and what their experience is in the marketplace."

Social functions can also have an effect on the marketplace. "When I was first an independent bookseller," said Robert McDonald, a buyer at Unabridged Books on Broadway, "I could go out to dinner every week with an author. But I think publishers have cut way back on their budgets for that kind of thing. And it's a shame, because...having been to dinner with Sasha [several years ago], I'm always going to read books that he writes. It sounds kind of dumb, but it really, really works. And when somebody asks 'What's new?' or 'What do you recommend?' I'm more liable to recommend his book than that of somebody I haven't met."

Martin Riker, assistant director of the Chicago-based Center for Book Culture, agreed with Reed that "there's a bunch of different communities and not a huge amount of conversation between them. There's the Chicago Review group; there's the Danny's reading series...there's the people here tonight, of whom I know surprisingly few. The Guild Complex is a different community; the Poetry Center is a different community.

"But one thing that bugs me," he continued, "is how community gets defined as people gathering in a place....Literature's in an odd position because it's the only art form where the experience of the art is not itself a social event. It's private. So literature has to invent ways of being social. It's not that I don't think there's value in people getting together and talking about literature. But I don't think there's value to literature defining its community this way. It's actually more advantageous to define it as being the readership for something."

Contacted later, the guest of honor concurred. "I have friends who are writers and friends who are interested in literature and that's all I need," says Hemon. "I don't need the industry. I don't care about mingling or meeting editors and big shots, so Chicago suits me fine. In New York, from what I've seen, in some ways people write for each other--like preaching to the choir--but here you meet people and there's no need to impress them. You either like them or you don't. And I can do other things. Writing is just a part of my life. I don't want it to be my whole life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jeoff Davis.

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