Back to Normal

“Unfortunately, Chicago is not a great literary town,” says John O’Brien, founder of the Center for Book Culture, which operates the Dalkey Archive Press and publishes two literary journals, the Review of Contemporary Fiction and Context. From the safety of his bucolic headquarters at Illinois State University in Normal (where he’s been for 11 years), O’Brien explains why the center–a hub for experimental and international literature–recently closed its Michigan Avenue branch and gave up hopes of moving here. “We spent three years trying to proselytize books and literature in Chicago,” he says, only to find that, with the exception of some bookstores, “there’s nothing friendly about it.” According to O’Brien, Chicago has no literary presence, local foundations couldn’t care less, and the book-review sections of the daily papers are “deplorable” evidence of the problem. In the world of books, Chicago’s a flyover.

Martin Riker, who ran the Chicago office, is now camped out in Denver, editing half-time for the center and working on a novel. He says O’Brien, who founded the organization in 1980 in Elmwood Park, “wanted to make Chicago another Minneapolis–the one city in this country that has a bunch of foundations that actually fund literature. Because the center is now the largest nonprofit literary press in the state [with seven full-time employees, a core of graduate student assistants, and an annual budget just under $1 million], we were hoping we could open up the field for literary publishing. But we weren’t getting people stepping up and wanting to be on our board.”

The Chicago venture had two main goals, says O’Brien. One was to snag foundation support; the other was to give Context–a thrice-yearly journal (formerly a quarterly) aimed at readers ages 18 to 24–a Chicago focus that would put the city “on the map.” The Cheney Foundation chipped in with a small grant for the journal, and the center received funding from the Chicago Community Trust and the Joyce Foundation. But juicy targets like the MacArthur Foundation, which O’Brien calls the “chief culprit,” took a pass: “We couldn’t even get a meeting with them.” Says O’Brien, “If you teach third graders how to write poetry for therapeutic reasons, they’ll give you money. They won’t give you anything to publish books.”

Spurned but moving on, the center and its publications are focusing on books in translation. O’Brien says that in the last 25 years–and especially in the last decade–the number of literary translations from American commercial publishers has dramatically shrunk and now stands at a pathetic 150 titles a year. “Fifteen years ago at least they were publishing the major foreign writers,” he says. “Now Carlos Fuentes’s New York publisher has allowed almost all his books to go out of print.” Fuentes will be reprinted by Dalkey, which puts out about 24 titles annually, and O’Brien’s traveling the globe in search of new voices–not best sellers, but writers who “might have trouble getting published in their own countries because they’re too experimental, too difficult, against the grain.” The center, which gets free housing from ISU (which also pays O’Brien’s salary), now has in-house readers in Vietnamese, French, Russian, Armenian, Serb, Croatian, and Lithuanian. They’re adding staff to cover Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, and Dutch, and O’Brien’s looking to expand to authors from the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. He says 75 percent of Dalkey Archive’s future titles will be translations and, in a shift from the publisher’s past emphasis, only 10 percent will be reprints.

The center’s author list includes the likes of Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, and Gilbert Sorrentino. “It’s not all experimental or innovative, but something about it is different,” O’Brien says. “One of the ironies is we’re in Normal, in what’s thought to be the conservative heartland, with the support coming not from Chicago but from a downstate university. We get most of our sales and coverage in New York, but we’re doing this out of the cornfields. That’s a perverse idea I enjoy.”

Paul Carroll’s Hyde Park Return

More sweet irony: Maryrose Carroll notes that the University of Chicago’s acquisition of poet Paul Carroll’s papers has them “going back to the place that censored them.” In 1958 the U. of C. forced out the editor and most of the staff of its student literary journal, the Chicago Review, for publishing poetry and fiction by beat writers, including chapters from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Editor Irving Rosenthal and Carroll (who’d been a key Review staffer) immediately founded Big Table magazine to publish the same work and soon found themselves in court fighting censorship again–this time by the U.S. Postal Service. The case came on the heels of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover brouhaha, but “wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been publicity about the censorship at the university,” Carroll’s widow says. Still, she’s comfortable with the university’s purchase of the Big Table papers (rediscovered by her two years ago) and the gift she and Carroll’s son Luke made of Carroll’s personal archive. In spite of losing a teaching job at Loyola because of the Big Table case, she says, Carroll–who grew up in Hyde Park, got a master’s degree from the U. of C., and taught in its adult education program–“loved the university for its principles.”

News Briefs

New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl will be the juror for next year’s Navy Pier Walk, the summerlong exhibition of monumental sculpture that opens in May. Pier Walk director Joseph Tabet says Schjeldahl will select as many as 35 pieces entirely from submissions; there will be no “invited” artists. Schjeldahl continues a recent tradition of high-profile jurors; critics Dave Hickey and David Pagel selected the last two shows….”Only we would miss the Christmas season,” says Rich Cahan about the December 14 closing of CityFiles, the store specializing in Chicago art, history, and books he and his wife, WBEZ contributing editor Cate Cahan, have run for the last year. Walking away from retail’s ten hottest days is of a piece with the store’s offbeat location on a residential corner in Evanston. CityFiles’ last gasp, opening today, is a show of overpainted lithographs by local artist Robert Guinan, who hasn’t exhibited in Chicago since 1989 but is famous in France for portraying “exotic” Chicago street life….The application for Chicago’s 2004 Community Arts Assistance Program, which distributes up to $1,000 each to individuals and organizations in all disciplines, comes in the form of a 26-page booklet, but never fear: the city’s offering five two-hour workshops to help artists make their way through it. The next session will be held at 6 PM Tuesday, November 18, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition, 11 E. Hubbard. Call 312-744-1742 or see for additional dates and times.