Lit 50: Who really books in Chicago 2010

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Illustration: Pamela Wishbow

A strange and unpleasant wind blows through the literary land. Our obsession with technocultural toys, whether iPhones, iPads or Kindles, makes the foundation of thought almost since thought was recorded, that is ink on paper, seem increasingly destined to be twittered into obsolescence. And it’s not just mere media frenzy, either. Massive upheaval among major publishers these last few years has left some of Chicago’s finest writers stranded in a strange land: that is, the work is finished, but no one is around to put it out. Who knows, maybe in two years when this version of Lit 50 returns, some, if not all, of our authors will be publishing mostly, if not entirely, in the digital realm. If that’s the case, let’s enjoy an old-fashioned book or two while we can.

As noted, this year’s list is limited to authors, poets, book designers and so on, with next year bringing back the behind-the-scenesters. As it was, this year’s project was daunting, with 126 viable names in consideration for fifty slots. The loss of our last #1 is most noteworthy, with the passing of Studs Terkel, but the list is populated by nineteen new faces, who either return to the list after an absence or show up for the first time. To make way for new names, some stalwarts had to be set aside; in many cases, this was due to their status as still between projects since our last go-round. We tried to limit ourselves in most cases to those with new work published between 2008 and 2010.

Lit 50 was written by Brian Hieggelke, Naomi Huffman, Tom Lynch, Andrew Rhoades and Rachel Sugar

Photo: Ethan Hill/Esquire

1. Roger Ebert
In 2006, when Roger Ebert was hospitalized following complications due to surgery for his cancer, he and his work disappeared for a few months as he recovered. The public was not aware just how close the legendary film critic came to death until he resurfaced, and at the time, while certainly joyous and grateful for the man’s good fortune, we could not imagine just how lucky we were he was still alive. During his absence, the loss of his film reviews was felt immediately—there was a noticeable lack of perspective on many important 2006-2007 films, until he was kind enough to go back and review the bigger pictures he missed. What we could never have expected is the outpouring of writing in other avenues, from his work on his tremendous blog, Roger Ebert’s Journal, to his witty jabs at his Twitter page, to his responses to the overwhelming comments he receives for each journal entry. Oh, and the books: Ebert continues to publish “Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook” each year, and in recent years he’s released the must-have collection “Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert” and the guide to his favorite filmmaker, “Scorsese by Ebert.” Just last month, word came of his forthcoming memoirs in 2011, to be preceded this fall by “Great Movies III” and “The Pot and How to Use Zit,” a cookbook! His fearless public appearances have made him an inspiration; his writing, still growing stronger day by day, has made him a hero. He can’t speak, but in 2010 he’s louder than ever. Turn it up.

Photo: Velibor Božovic

2. Aleksandar Hemon
Bosnian-born Aleksandar Hemon’s story has become the stuff of legend. In 1992, as he was visiting the United States, the war broke out in Bosnia, effectively stranding him here. He published his first story in English in 1995, and eventually saw his work appear in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Esquire, among others. He’s published four books, all of which critics drooled over: 2000’s breakthrough “The Question of Bruno,” “Nowhere Man” in 2002, 2008’s “The Lazarus Project” and last year’s story collection “Love and Obstacles.” “The Lazarus Project,” which New York magazine proclaimed the best novel of that year, was a finalist for the National Book Award. He was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2004, and the year before, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Not bad for someone who isn’t even writing in his first language.

Photo: Jeremy Lawson

3. Scott Turow
Scott Turow is a Chicago-born author of ten books: two nonfiction and eight fiction, which have sold more than 25 million copies. After graduating from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago until 1986, when he decided to pursue a writing career. His fiction books include: “Presumed Innocent,” “The Burden of Proof,” “Pleading Guilty,” “The Laws of Our Fathers,” “Personal Injuries,” “Reversible Errors,” “Ordinary Heroes,” “Limitations.” “Innocent,” which revisited the characters who first put him on the bestseller list, was released this year. His nonfiction works include “One L” and “Ultimate Punishment.” Three of his books have been made into films. Still a partner at Chicago law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Turow is currently touring to promote his latest book.

4. Garry Wills
Once named “perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years,” the prolific author and historian has racked up the major literary prizes: a Pulitzer, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, a National Medal for the Humanities, and a Merle Curti Award (plus an appearance on the master list of Nixon political opponents, which, depending on who you ask, may or may not be an award in itself). Wills, now a Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern, has written widely on American and religious history; the New York Review of Books-mainstay’s latest historical investigation is “Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.”

5. Chris Ware
The award-winning cartoonist may be the only author on our list who is the subject of someone else’s new release: “The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking,” a collection of essays about his work, was published by University of Missouri Press this spring. For his part, Ware, who’s best known for his “ACME Novelty Library” series and “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth,” is continuing to make his mark on the comics world with his latest installment, “ACME Novelty Library #20,” which comes out this October. His work is everywhere—New Yorker covers, art museums, indie film posters—but he’s most recently attracted some attention for where it’s not. The blogosphere has been buzzing about Ware’s never-printed Fortune 500 cover, which the magazine commissioned for its May issue and then rejected—seems Ware’s social satire was a little too sharp for the Fortunate.

6. Luis Alberto Urrea
Born in Tijuana to an American mother and a Mexican father, Luis Alberto Urrea’s fiction often portrays dual-culture experiences. A prolific writer of thirteen books, Urrea has published in nearly every genre, including poetry, fiction and essays. His first book, “Across the Wire,” was named a New York Times Notable Book. In 1999, he won an American Book Award for his memoir, “Nobody’s Son.” A poem from his book, “The Fever of Being,” was included in The 1996 Best American Poetry collection. In 2004, his book about Mexican immigrants lost in the desert, “The Devil’s Highway,” won both the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent work, “Into the Beautiful North,” is a national best-seller. Urrea resides in Chicago and teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

7. Stuart Dybek
Often called the master of short stories, Stuart Dybek is a Chicago native and the author of three books: “I Sailed with Magellan,” “The Coast of Chicago,” which was the One Book, One Chicago 2004 selection, and “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods.” Northwestern University’s Distinguished Writer in Residence has had his work appear in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories series and Poetry. “I Sailed With Magellan,” was named one of the New York Time’s “Notable Books” and was chosen by the ALA as one of the Most Notable Books of 2005. In 2007, Dybek received a MacArthur Fellowship, and just a day later, the 2007 Rea Award, a $30,000 prize for influential fiction. He is currently working on,yes, another short-story collection.

8. Adam Zagajewski
The Polish-born poet, essayist and novelist now teaches at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. Zagajewski came of age as a writer living in Europe in the sixties and seventies and was a leading voice in the “Generation of ’68” whose writing mocked and protested communist rule. The Guggenheim winner’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” gained fame when it ran in The New Yorker shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “Eternal Enemies,” a book of poems whose settings mark the many places Zagajewski has lived, came out last year.

9. Joe Meno
A former student and now professor of fiction at Columbia College, Joe Meno was thrust into the forefront of the Chicago literary scene after winning the Nelson Algren award for fiction in 2003. But even before that, he published “Tender as Hellfire” and “How The Hula Girl Sings.” His third novel, “Hairstyles of the Damned” was selected as part of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program. Since then, Meno has published two novels and two short story collections, including “The Great Perhaps” in 2009, which won the Great Lakes Book Award. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Witness, TriQuarterly, Mid-American Review, Washington Square and Other Voices. Meno, who just won a Pushcart Prize, is currently working on his sixth novel as well as a new play being produced by the House Theatre next year.

10. Christian Wiman
In his seven years as editor of Poetry, Wiman’s been committed to breathing life—and sometimes controversy—into both the magazine and the art form. (“I’m not about to make it a dull, staid literary magazine,” he told Poets & Writers, and considering the growth in circulation, he’s true to his word.) He’s also a noted poet (“Hard Night” and “The Long Home”) and essayist (“Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet”), with his third collection of verse, “Every Riven Thing,” slated for publication this November. Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer,” a collection of prose dealing with issues of faith, belief and doubt, is in the works.

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14 Responses to “Lit 50: Who really books in Chicago 2010”

  1. ALH Says:

    I’m disappointed to see Marcus Sakey so highly ranked on this list, with other more talented writers (e.g., Nami Mun) below. In his most recent crime novel, Sakey’s characters fell flat (and felt one-dimensional), and someone who lives in Chicago should at least be able to get the name of one of the city’s major parks correct (the novel references “Millennial Park” more than once). Perhaps crime fiction’s standards aren’t as high as other genres, but they should be. And in any case, putting his talent at #16 (where Luis Urrea resided last year) is a sad statement about your ranking system.

  2. paul clark Says:

    Julia Keller should be on this list, as the last surviving writer for a daily paper in the city who writes about books.

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  4. Lola Koundakjian Says:

    Please note that thought put down is *much older* than pen on paper. Clay tablets, papyri, ring a bell? The codex was not the earliest form of the book!

  5. Penny Says:

    The ranking system makes no sense. And thanks for just listing published works and institutions of employment. I could never just google that on my own. A few more quotes, maybe some critical analysis might be worthwhile. And last year Oprah was no. 1 and now she’s not included at all. Obviously she still has a significant impact. If her impact does not affect the local lit world, then why have her at the top last year? It is impossible to create a hiearchy for all these published authors. Really why is Joe Meno “higher” than Audrey Niffennegger? (I feel dumb posing the question, as if it matters, but how can that be quantified?) All in all, this is a rather dumb tradition you are attempting to pursue NewCity because it is provincial and useless for anyone wanting to understand local lit. What did this article tell me that I could not find on Wikipedia?

  6. Outside the Loop RADIO Says:

    […] is out with its list of the top 50 movers and shakers in the Chi-literary scene.  Brian discusses this list on the Big Show this […]

  7. Sylvia Mendoza Says:

    Congrats Ivan, Carol, and Isaac!!
    Sylvia Mendoza

  8. CJ Laity Says:

    This is a MUCH BETTER list than NewCity has produced in years. Primarily composed of authors, as it should be, and not just a generic list of every non-profit director and bookstore owner in town. For the first four pages I was asking myself, where’s Simone Muench and then, wala, there she is. Good job this year, NewCity, you really put some thought into it this time.

  9. Attorney Says:

    Nice list, but my favorite would have to be Scott Turow. Presumed Innocent is one of the best reads I’ve ever taken the time to digest.

  10. währungsrechner Says:

    Es ist unmöglich, eine hiearchy für all diese erschienenen Autoren zu schaffen. Wirklich warum ist Joe Meno “höher” als Audrey Niffennegger? (Ich fühle mich dumm Fragestellung, wie wenn es darauf ankommt, aber wie kann das quantifizieren?) Alles in allem ist dies ein ziemlich dumm Tradition Sie versuchen, NewCity verfolgen sind, weil es provinziell und nutzlos für alle, die verstehen, ist die lokale leuchtet . Was hat dieser Artikel mir sagen, dass ich nicht auf Wikipedia zu finden?

  11. suv with 3rd row seating Says:

    I was born in Poland so I’m really glad to see Adam Zagajewski on the list. I read some of his poems and thought they were great. It took me a while to understand them, though ;)

  12. SUVs With 3rd Row Seating Says:

    Nice list, but my favorite would have to be Scott Turow. Presumed Innocent is one of the best reads I’ve ever taken the time to digest.

  13. diana Says:

    I agreed with about 95% of the points you made, especially Aleksandar Hemon, but where we differe somewhat is the poems written by Adam Zagajewski. But all in all, I think you were dead on.

  14. Garnett Cohen Says:

    I agree with CJ Laity about this year’s list. In the past, I’ve been surprised by how many promoters of writing/literature were listed rather than actual working/publishing/award-winning writers. Of course there are some important writers who are missing from this year’s list–and a few on the list who don’t seem as distinguished as the rest (or as distinguished as some left off), but that comes down to opinion. Overall, great list. I am wondering if, in the future, there might be two or three lists–maybe one could be exclusively for mystery writers or they could be broken down by genre. They would have to be shorter, obviously.

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