Finishing the Lit 50 is always such a bittersweet ending for me. What starts out as such a pleasure of discovery—Chicago’s literary world now has more than 200 published writers!—ends in the sorrow of having to leave so many worthy names off the list. We do our best to reflect the sum of our knowledge and reporting, to add in diversity of style, medium and genre, and to constantly introduce new players to the mix. But we know that, in the end, many choices might appear capricious, that for every worthy individual honored, two have been overlooked. A day later, after the lingering effects of sleep, sunlight and exercise deprivation and an overdose of junk food and energy drinks abates, I know we’ll return to where we started: overjoyed at the growing literary abundance of our city.
Careful readers will remember that we alternate lists each year, between the behind-the-scenes influencers and the on-the-page creators; this year belongs to the latter. Which is why you won’t see represented the two most talked-about new endeavors in literary Chicago: J.C. Gabel’s magnificent revival of The Chicagoan, and Elizabeth Taylor’s noble undertaking, Printers Row. We are confidently hopeful, or perhaps hopefully confident, that they’ll still be around to have their day a year from now. (Brian Hieggelke)
Lit 50 was written by Greg Baldino, Ella Christoph, Brian Hieggelke, Naomi Huffman and Micah McCrary. See previous years here.
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Power in Chicago has been passed on. No, we’re not talking about that little office in City Hall, but that Oprah, she of the book club that long perched her atop this list, has flown the coop. So now it’s official. The City of Big Shoulders is Poetry’s town. It’s unlikely that Carl Sandburg would have ever imagined such an unlikely outcome when he crafted the city’s calling card, in verse, but it’s not even debatable. Not only can we claim Poetry magazine, the premier publication of its kind anywhere, but its wealthy sibling the Poetry Foundation will open a whole building dedicated to the form later this month. Plus, this is the town that created the Poetry Slam as well as Louder Than a Bomb, the largest teen slam anywhere. Talk about poetic justice. Read the rest of this entry »
As the editor of Poetry magazine, Christian Wiman resides atop a prominent perch, perhaps one precarious for a poet. With its recently found riches, this once relatively obscure publication now occupies a place of increasing prominence and Wiman, as its leader, has become known these last few years as much for his life as for his writing. To summarize: he stopped writing, then fell in love and got married, found out he had a rare and incurable blood cancer—with indeterminate consequences regarding his life expectancy—and turned to a deeper, public commitment to Christianity. That’s a load of information for a writer’s work to bear, but fortunately, Wiman returned to his craft and his new collection of poems, “Every Riven Thing,” manages to carry all of his baggage weightlessly. His is a world of acute insight into the human questions—of mortality, of God, of nature—rendered without proselytizing, without prognosis. He just observes, and still questions. He’s as at home on the trains of the city as he is on the range of his native West Texas. He believes in God, yet leads us into the existential void, into the terror of the terminal soul. His illness sharpens his vision; his words are radiated. And yet, he’s funny, using humor to disarm the darkness that lies within reach of his questions. His public readings are a rarity, and his work works best aloud, so consider yourself fairly warned about the consequences of your absence. (Brian Hieggelke)
Christian Wiman reads from “Every Riven Thing” January 13 at 7pm at the Stop Smiling Storefront, 1371 North Milwaukee. Free.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Is it wrong to feel optimistic? You couldn’t be blamed if you didn’t. Yet while the country’s economy crumbles around us and less and less funds are available for the producers of the printed word, those in the literary world are finding new and inventive ways to stay afloat. We will not go down without a fight, and progress, of course, is key. So is awareness—in order to get the word out more efficiently (and, likely, to untether itself from the uncertain future of the paper form), Printers Row Book Fair changed its name from “Book Fair” to “Lit Fest” to have a title that better fully represents the weekend’s events, in time for its twenty-fifth anniversary edition. As is our custom, we time our annual Lit 50 list to the weekend’s events; this year’s list of local behind-the-scenes literati—no straight-up authors or poets this time—covers a large spectrum of Chicago’s world of words. As with past years we sought out those behind the smaller presses as well as the monumental figures. Some new names have emerged and many staples appear again, but all tirelessly labor to bring this ancient art to the community at large. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago’s book world can be a quiet place. In part due to the solitary nature of the work, and in part due to the void of publishing parties that keep New York’s assorted gawkers journaling away, it’s easy to think nothing new is happening. Jeffrey Eugenides moves to town, Jeffrey Eugenides moves away, and no one seems to notice. Then, bam!, Aleksandar Hemon publishes “The Lazarus Project,” the comparisons to Nabokov resume and suddenly we’re the center of the universe again, if only for a moment.
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