If there’s one thing that was made abundantly clear in polling the literati for this year’s Lit 50 list, it’s that the Chicago literary scene is an incredibly supportive one. It’s no Utopia, of course. We’re certain it has its jerks. But it was overwhelming to receive such an outpour of appreciation for countless behind-the-scenes folks who make the lit scene in this town such an exceedingly vibrant one. This year’s list includes indie-bookstore owners, booksellers, publishers, editors, chairs and directors of creative writing programs, literacy advocates, library leaders, execs at major literary foundations, organizers of festivals, conferences, live lit productions and salons. All of the individuals on this list contribute significantly—whether they help to get books in readers’ hands, excite the next generation in literary arts, afford writers opportunities to publish, provide storytellers a stage to share their tales, or create environments where writers can make the right connections or just talk shop. We raise a glass to all on the list, but also to those innumerable individuals who likewise help it all go ‘round. (Amy Danzer)
Lit 50 was written by Liz Baudler, Heidi Bloom, Brendan Buck, Amy Danzer, Amy Friedman, Brian Hieggelke, Jarret Neal, Toni Nealie, Robert Rodi, Bill Savage, Kim Steele, Danielle Susi, Mahjabeen Syed and John Wilmes.
Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Women and Children First
Literary Editor at Large, Chicago Tribune
When it comes to Chicago’s thriving literary scene, all roads lead to Elizabeth Taylor. As literary editor at large for the Chicago Tribune she has her hand in numerous literary events both locally and nationally. Her roster speaks for itself: she writes the Editor’s Choice column for the Tribune, assists with planning, organizing, and promoting the Printers Row Lit Festival and literary prizes such as the Nelson Algren Short Story Prize. Last year, unbeknownst to even her closest friends and colleagues, Taylor served as chair of the Pulitzer Prize Fiction jury which presented the award to Anthony Doerr’s dynamic World War Two novel “All the Light We Cannot See.” Taylor will have a role in the Pulitzer Prize Centennial taking place in 2016 which will sponsor events in all fifty states.
President, Poetry Foundation
President of the Poetry Foundation since 2013, Robert Polito was previously director of the New School’s Writing Program for twenty-one years. A critic and a poet both, his recent poem “Your Call,” printed in the November 2014 New Yorker, comes while he’s at work on a book studying noir with Knopf, as well as one on Bob Dylan with Norton. Polito also hosts PoetryNow, a radio program on WFMT, Chicago’s classical and folk station, and he was a judge for last year’s National Book Award. Just the second-ever president of the foundation, Polito hails from Boston, and earned his PhD at nearby Harvard. “Hollywood & God” (2009) and “Doubles” (1995), two poetry collections, are among his published work. He is a contributing editor to BOMB and the Boston Review.
Founder, President, Publisher and Series Editor, Sourcebooks
“Behind all of the innovation is fundamentally our desire to create a more expansive future for readers, authors and book publishing,” says Dominique Raccah, founder of Sourcebooks. According to Publishers Weekly, the company saw a twenty percent jump in sales from 2013 to 2014, partly due to their direct-to-consumer projects including ways for customers to personalize books. Sourcebooks also has the distinction of being the first independent publisher on the iPad and an app on the newly launched Apple Watch.
Commissioner, Chicago Public Library
Brian Bannon is responsible for the eighty libraries that serve Chicago’s 2.6 million residents. A few years into the job now, Bannon started by funding three new branches, the expanding and retooling of the “Summer Reading” program and “Teacher in the Library,” and continues to grow “One Book, One Chicago.” This past year, guided by Bannon’s digital tech savvy and vision, the CPL offered “OBOC Online,” which Bannon describes as a “serialized social reading experience.” To further enhance the One Book conversation, the CPL also featured guest blogs from local authors who shared their thoughts on Chicago’s heroes. In efforts to engage the teen demographic, the CPL under Bannon’s innovative guidance has created a Teen Services department and expanded YOUmedia spaces to an additional eleven locations. In 2016, the CPL is slated to launch its first ever Teen Lit Fest. Bannon is grateful for the collaboration between the Chicago Public Library Foundation and the CPL, and the support the Foundation offers so many of CPL’s literary programs (e.g. OBOC), but also major literary events such as the annual Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner.
President of Client Services, Perseus Books
Recently named to the new post of President of Client Services within Perseus Books, Mark Suchomel leads the teams that work with an impressive selection of independent publishing companies. Perseus’ clients have published books that have received awards such as the Nobel Prize in Literature, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Also, as Suchomel notes, their books frequent the New York Times Bestseller list—often at the same time. The success of Perseus can be traced back to its ability “to compete with large publishing conglomerates due to [its] reach and clout in the market.” They are significantly larger than their competitors, a fact that has obvious advantages.
Founder and President, Agate Publishing
While some of Agate’s writers have been “wooed away by bigger publishers,” in October the publisher will release a new Chicago-set narrative by Pulitzer-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. Doug Seibold remarks that Agate is continuing to grow by exploring an expansion in late 2016 into young adult and children’s books in partnership with a high-profile collaborating editor. They are continuing to grow their partnership with the Chicago Tribune, now branching into sports books, with a photo history of the Chicago Bears set for September release—the first in a planned series on Chicago sports teams. In 2012, Agate was recognized as the fastest-growing independent publisher in America by Publishers Weekly and counts recent winners of the James Beard, Pulitzer and National Book Award prizes among their authors.
Keith Michael Fiels
Executive Director, American Library Association
After thirteen years as Executive Director of the American Library Association, Keith Michael Fiels continues at the helm. Based on his statements in the press and his previous roles as director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners State Agency, president of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), director of a multiple library network and staff consultant for the New York and New Jersey State Libraries, his commitment to libraries across the board is obvious.
Author and Board Member, Authors Guild
Former president and now board member of the Authors Guild, Scott Turow continues to fight the fight against what he refers to as “the Darth Vader of the Literary World,” Amazon. This past January, he and former editor of The New Republic Frank Foer “successfully defeated the able proponents—Matt Yglesias and Joe Konrath—of the proposition, Amazon Is the Reader’s Friend, in an Intelligence Squared debate in New York.” He also still dabbles in TV writing, having just finished a pilot script called “Unjust,” another courthouse drama. However, when he’s not waging war against forces threatening culture at large, the majority of his writing time is going into finishing a draft of a novel with the working title of “The Same Justice.” Turow gives us a teaser: “it’s about an American lawyer who goes to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate a massacre of hundreds of Romas in Bosnia in 2004; US NATO peacekeeping troops are the leading suspects.”
Donald G. Evans
Founder and Executive Director, Chicago Literary Hall of Fame
When he launched the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2010, author Don Evans envisioned a “movement to stock a Chicago bookshelf so fussy and cared for that when we look at the spines we’ll gleam with pride.” With thirty inductees to date—including the class of 2014’s Margaret Anderson, David Hernandez, Edgar Lee Masters, Willard Motley, Shel Silverstein and Margaret Walker—that bookshelf is already brimming with greatness, and Evans’ movement continues to build. At last December’s induction ceremony, Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall was standing-room-only, the auditorium packed with families and friends of the honorees, along with some of Chicago’s leading writers, scholars, actors and musicians. CLHF is about more than paying homage to our city’s literary giants, though. Last year’s programming included a youth literary contest co-sponsored with the American Writers Museum, presentation of the 2014 Fuller Lifetime Achievement Award to Harry Mark Petrakis and a monthly, Chicago-focused book club at Cliff Dwellers. The indefatigable Evans is also in the process of creating a database of Chicago books and literary map of the city. In addition to his work with the CLHF and his writing, he is also the Chicago editor of the upstart journal Great Lakes Review.
Founder, Open Books
Stacy Ratner and Open Books opened the Literacenter on May 1, a space of 38,000 square feet in the West Loop which hosts Open Books’ main store and programs, and has more than thirty active members working on things from early childhood literacy to adult education. On Ratner’s website, she attributes her law degree and ability to garner$30 million of funding for various startups to “the transformational power of literacy.” Ratner is the recipient of an Emerging Leader Fellowship from the Chicago Community Trust, a spot on the national 40 Women To Watch Over 40 list, and has won the Social Enterprise Alliance’s Innovation award.