And they said the gentle art of literary criticism was dead, confined to irrelevance. Not this week, gentle reader. Not in Chicago. Not in the heat of L'affaire de Shteir. What book review in the history of Chicago literature — heck, what recent book review, period — has enjoyed the attention afforded to Rachel Shteir's review in the last Sunday's New York Times?
Therein, lest you have been too busy crying over the Chicago Cubs, sitting in a storefront theater, burying your head in the writings of Nelson Algren or Rick Kogan, or otherwise acting like a unreconstructed Chicago sentimentalist, Shteir used a tart, three-pronged review of "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream," by Thomas Dyja; "Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor's Office and Into Prison," by Tribune reporters Jeff Coen and John Chase; and "You Were Never in Chicago," by Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg to eviscerate not so much the books in question, although mostly those, too, but the city of their collective setting.
Let us review. Between Monday and Thursday, the review sparked a point-by-point takedown by Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader, followed by a follow-up to that response; an editorial in Crain's Chicago Business; an emotional column by Steinberg, wherein he recounts his shame and receives balm from a soulful Chicago cabbie; comments in defense of Chicago by Mayor Rahm Emanuel; an editorial on a WMAQ-Ch.5 news broadcast by an outraged Carol Marin; much chatter on Chicago Public Radio; and a prominent story in this newspaper by Rex Huppke.
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After a couple of days of dignified quiet, as becomes the critic who lets her words speak for themselves even as her opponents comb the Internet to undermine her credibility, Shteir seized her moment and was showing up everywhere by midweek. She was chatting with Phil Ponce on WTTW-11; talking, obliquely, to the mostly unimpressed Greg Hinz of Crain's; commiserating with the sympathetic Lewis Lazare of Chicago Business Journal; and answering the questions of Carol Felsenthal of Chicago Magazine, which ran its interview online under the optimistic headline, "A rare Q&A," as if Shteir were J.K. Rowling.
That is merely a partial list, and accounts not for the tweets, Facebook rants and comments, those golden (thanks again, Blago) indicators of relevance to which bloviators cling during this brutally precarious era of online journalism.
Then there were the water cooler conversations. Once my intent to write about this showed up on newsroom schedules, there were pleas not to bring any more attention to such a patently flawed piece of civic provocation, as distinct from "a real review"; claims that the story was played out; suggestions that the role of gender here merits exploration (many of Shteir's detractors being the teary, good old boys of Chicago); contrarian expressions of sympathy for a fellow pariah by Lake Michigan; and annoyance and weariness.
Where were the Chicago comedians in this controversy, one colleague wondered? Hospitality toward improv comedy was one of the few assets Shteir condescendingly allowed Chicago. A lot of time was wasted this week watching actor Michael Shannon perform (for "Funny or Die") a sorority girl's rant that went viral. Why squander Shteir? But perhaps the slowness confirms her point: Chicago artists have a tough time getting national attention.
Inarguably, the civic reaction actually has been a good deal more interesting and revealing than the actual piece. But there is much to learn and observe here.
But first, Chicago being a small and interconnected town (one of the many things Shteir finds annoying), some disclosures: Shteir teaches theater at DePaul University, where I am a member of the adjunct faculty. Chase and Coen are reporters at this newspaper. In her piece, Shteir briefly pokes fun at my "Theater Loop" blog's tag line about Chicago being "America's hottest theater city."
So, the teachable moments: Shteir's very clever article was a useful reminder that the best critical writing does not confine itself to that which is under review but makes broader points that reach for relevance. The New York Times editors of the Book Review must be delighted. For fans of the beleaguered art form of literary criticism, Shteir also wrote a brilliantly self-protected piece — to attack the article's premise that Chicago is a town of insecure bloviators was actually to confirm its premise. A most impressive suit of rhetorical armor, especially when used to protect such cutting jabs. And for those averse to self-promotion, the fracas should be a reminder that where you say something can matter more than what you say. Shteir understands the role of power.
What Shteir was really deconstructing, of course, was messy, Chicago-style sentimentalism, a tradition that surely includes Steinberg and Kogan, as well as the likes of Studs Terkel and Roger Ebert, not all of whom were born here, but who came to stand for the heart of a city, a bleeding organ that Shteir finds does not stem the flow of the current facts, once you lay out Chicago on the surgeon's table. You can see that division in the hurt response by Steinberg (speaking of big softies). Shteir starts her essay with "Poor Chicago," a phrase uttered by an unnamed "friend," before laying out the anti-Chicago argument with cold precision. Steinberg starts his column with a supportive phone call from his dad.
Shteir's critics are in a tough spot. Like Algren, who compared Chicago to a beautiful woman with a broken nose, they are trying to argue the logic of love, which rarely goes well.
Class also plays a part here. Many of those bloviating Chicago softies, as led by Richard M. Daley, do not identify with intellectualism. Yet America, as Shteir not-so-subtly implies, is a meritocracy, especially in these neoliberal Obama years, where the highly educated and socially privileged are in almost all of the most powerful positions. In the great American mythology, New York is where the culturally smart make it, just as Washington is where the smart politicians land, leaving us the ones more interested in clout. The New York brand (sentimentality when necessary, intellectual centrality always) requires the maintenance of that status quo, which is perhaps why the headline on the Times obituary of Ebert subtly called him the "critic for the common man."
Sure. And an intellectual. Ebert was a lover and a thinker, like the best Chicagoans. Had either side not been there, he would not have been afforded Chicago's version of the honors that Britain just gave Margaret Thatcher. Ebert had a home. To feel that way about Chicago requires compromises, but what creature on Earth does not build a refuge from storms? A braver one than me, anyway.
There can be no doubt that the revealing and shrill force of the Shteir blowback last week has much to do with the kids dying on Chicago's streets and all the disunity around public education, both unacceptable states of affairs that threaten all that Chicago sentimentalists hold dear. There is a sense that the city's self-image is bleeding from a thousand cuts. Shteir picked her moment well.