By Brian Costello
I’ve been doing readings in, out, and around Chicago for nine years now. Thax Douglas, who ain’t dead yet, contrary to what the blogosphere was eager to tell you, helped out with my first reading. It was in the basement of Myopic Books. The story I read, an endless, meandering tale of two Peoria dads observing their sons’ Little League game in the thickest of “El-a-noy” accents, bombed, but the Schlitz and Swiss Cake Rolls I brought with me were a big hit among the transients who attended.
My next reading went a little bit better. I had befriended 2ndHand editor Todd Dills—a steadfast champion of this city’s literary scene if there ever was one—who published an essay I had written, a comparative study of crates vs. barrels. I read this at the Empty Bottle while setting off a squirt gun in the pocket of my khaki pants to make it look like I was pissing myself as I read. While actually pissing in the Bottle men’s room, a dude in one of the bands who played later told me my act was “genius.” Naturally, this incontrovertible assessment of my talent went to my head, and I engaged in a lot of these kinds of shenanigans at readings.
For a long time, it was a lot of fun, and then, it wasn’t. In myself, and those around me, I grew bored with what the art of the reading (in bars, especially) required: with po-mo structures superseding actual character development and meaningful interaction, of the cheap proverbial “purple-veined dick jokes” Bill Hicks spoke of in his comedy act thrown into work to appease drunken bar crowds, of lazy pop-culture references, of shouted braggadocio re: ass and tittied sexcapades, of subpar Sedarises and their foibles, of all this me, me, me, I, I, I. Wocka wocka wocka. If I’d rather do sketch comedy, perhaps it’s time to sign up for classes at Second City. If I want to be a stand-up comic, perhaps it’s time to drive out to Mount Vernon and ply my wares at Zanies. Guilty as charged. But there should be more.
I say this not because I hate Chicago’s current reading scene, but because I love it and find it inspiring enough to hope it learns from my mistakes. Nowadays, there are so many fantastic reading series happening around the city—attended by receptive audiences usually demanding enough to expect more than the above bummer paragraph, and talented local writers willing to take bona fide risks (i.e. bombing, failing, sucking on stage) with their material—here’s hoping more agents and publishers take notice of all this diversity of style and approach. Besides greats like Stuart Dybek, we’re seeing local writers like Elizabeth Crane, James Kennedy and Kyle Beachy achieve wider recognition. Here’s hoping NYC publishing houses figure out that they’re just the beginning of what’s happening here.
And I guess that leads to where I hope Chicago’s indie-literary scene is headed. Right now, there is more breadth than there has ever been. Now, the next step, I hope, is more depth. Earned laughter, street-smart authority and wacky props have their place (believe me, I know), but so do those pregnant silences of fully engaged audiences hearing honest oral tellings of what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Now more than ever, it’s what we need from writing, and how we’ll get to it remains to be seen. But when we do, we’ll have something really and truly remarkable.