Chicago’s Literary Renaissance

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb today when I say that Chicago is experiencing a literary renaissance.

Although Chicago has of late been accused of unwarranted boosterism, and although it has been said that the city’s book scene isn’t happening, and although most of the “big publishers” have long since left Chicago, and although local writers keep wandering east as though some other big city out that way is still the mecca of publishing, I beg to differ.

Last weekend, I tweeted that I wished time travel and/or cloning were possible. Why? Because so many great literary events were taking place that it was literally impossible to hit all of them. Chicago Writers Conference welcomed hundreds of attendees—attendees who sat in on sessions and panels led by great writers from all around the city. Glen Ellyn’s Annual BookFest hosted scores of writers and readers at various events, including an author trade show where dozens of authors chatted with each other and readers in a room that was buzzing with energy. Readings and slams and workshops were taking place at venues across the city and in the suburbs.

Not that one great weekend for word geeks makes for a literary renaissance.

But as we continuously update the Chicago Book Review events page, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot going on in the city for bibliophiles. In fact, there’s something happening just about every night. Scores of bookstores offer author signings, readings, and discussions. Workshops and classes and networking events are taking place for writers, editors, and other publishing professionals. Everywhere you look, there are literary events, whether you’re a writer or a reader or an editor—that is to say, on whatever side of the book page you land.

Not that a calendar full of great literary events makes for a true renaissance.

Chicago is home to (come on: say it with me) more than 125 publishers, from micro presses to full-on global publishers. Sourcebooks, led by Dominque Raccah, continues to rack up awards and kudos from various sources as the house leads the way in publishing’s brave new world. The actress Jessica Lange just published her first children’s book under Sourcebooks’s Jabberwocky imprint. She adds her name to a growing list of celebrity authors that the Naperville-based house has snagged. Not to be outdone, Agate Publishing is garnering media attention with new titles from local hot dog guru Doug Sohn, Hoosier Mama Pie Company’s Paula Haney, and up-and-coming novelist Kiese Laymon. Smaller houses like Allium Press, Curbside Splendor, and Swan Isle Press are attracting attention, too.

Not that a few successful publishing houses makes for a lasting renaissance.

Although it can’t be denied that Chicago has lost some really good authors to that big city out east, the Windy City is still home to more than just a few writers. Maybe it’s that we’re too modest here. Maybe it’s because our authors aren’t shouting from the rooftops that Chicago is the best city in the world or the only city that matters. Maybe most people think of Chicago as a has-been lit city of long-dead writers like Hemingway and Sandburg and Bellow. Maybe it’s time to move on. Today, Chicago can lay claim to the likes of Scott Turow, Audrey Niffenegger, and Gillian Flynn. Up-and-coming authors like Susanna Calkins, Arnie Bernstein, and Patricia Ann McNair call Chicago home. Who else? Well, let’s just say there’s no shortage of fodder for CBR’s “Local Author Spotlight” series.

Not that a bunch of best-selling authors makes for a literary renaissance.

All these authors and all these events are converging on what strikes me as a thriving bookstore scene. Not that anyone would expect to see “thriving” and “bookstore” in the same sentence these days. But despite the gaps left by giant, big-box bookstores, Chicago is indeed home to a number of fabulous indie bookstores with loyal clientele who find not only great books but word-geek camaraderie. Quimby’s is frequently highlighted as one of the city’s top shops. Anderson’s pulls in myriad authors across a number of genres for frequent events. Myopic. Powell’s. 57th Street Books. The Book Table. Bookie’s. Centuries & Sleuths. If you haven’t found a bookstore you love, you aren’t looking hard enough.

Not that a few really good indie bookstores can sustain a literary renaissance.

Indeed, it’s not just one thing. It’s not one best-selling author. It’s not one bookstore. It’s not one writers conference. It’s a bunch of great authors and budding writers coming together in a literary community. It’s a bunch of local authors working with local publishers to issue new titles that are reaching people not just here but far beyond. It’s a bunch of bookstores working with local publishers and local writers to put on some really great literary events that local readers are flocking to.

People are excited about what’s happening in Chicago. I feel that energy—a literary energy that isn’t fiction. And I don’t think I’m the only one. What do you think?

—Kelli Christiansen

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