(Note: This piece is also posted on my current events blog Man Without a Newspaper.)
By now I’m late to the discussion of the controversy surrounding De Paul University Theater Professor Rachel Shteir’s April 18th review of three recently released books on Chicago– Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, Jeff Coen and John Chase’s Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison, and Neil Steinberg’s You Were Never In Chicago.
Her article has started a heated debate between those who agree with her that Chicago has an unwarranted sense of self-confidence (i.e. “boosterism”) and those who feel that she’s a bitchy New Yorker carrying on in the age-old rant that Chicago is a provincial or “second city” in comparison to the coastal greatness and finesse of the Big Apple.
As fascinating as these critiques are to rehash (they are at least a century old), their writers have neglected to point out three of the largest flaws in Shteir’s piece.
The first is one of genre. Shteir is a terrible book reviewer. Perhaps she thinks that she has attained the status of an Edmund Wilson or Susan Sontag who could ramble on about whatever they liked while ostensibly “reviewing” a book or film. That, at least, is what Shteir does throughout much of her review. In fact, the only section that truly feels like a book review involves Thomas Dyja’s masterful book, which deserves a much more incisive commentary than Shteir can provide.
A second flaw manifests itself in her categorical confusion between literary writing and public policy. Rahm Emanuel and his staff are indeed”swaggering” in their boostership for Chicago. So are local businesses and developers. That’s their job. Chicago literary writers, on the other hand, are beholden to their own idiosyncratic ideals. Part of our problem as a city is that the published writers who are labelled “Chicago authors” are so divergent that a clear picture is hard to assemble. What is the common thread that links Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, Ida Wells, Aleksandar Heman, and Brigid Pasulka? Immigration is about the best I can do, but that applies to many U.S. cities.
This leads me to my final point, and that is Professor Shteir’s silence on the role the publishing industry (most of which is located in her beloved New York) plays in skewing the image of Chicago writing and culture that she purports to explain to NYT readers. I can think of many Chicago authors, quite a few of whom are close friends, whose works answer Shteir’s charge that Chicago needs to be more self-critical. Yet they can’t find a publisher willing to take a risk on their fiction or they publish in small presses who hardly ever come under scrutiny by the likes of the NYT book review.
Shteir’s review should remind cultural critics that public intellectual work has standards of its own. Just because you’re not under the unrelenting microscope of the peer-review process doesn’t mean that you can get away with sloppy reasoning and evidence. It should also remind us that generalizations about cities (or anything for that matter) are limited by thousands of qualifiers. “Chicago literature” or a “Chicago style” are simply heuristics.
On a more personal note, I’ve lived in Chicago for 13 years. A transplant from Vermont, it took a while for me to get used to how flat the landscape is in the city. I’ve grown to love Chicago over that time in the complicated way described by Nelson Algren in his book Chicago: City on the Make–“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
Like any city, town, or village, a resident needs to learn how to take the good along with the bad if they plan to become “part of this particular patch.” I’ve learned how to do this in my time in Chicago. Shteir apparently is still deciding if its worth her time. I wish her luck.