Wow–I haven’t seen an extensive, vitriolic Liz Armstrong hate thread in so long! At least since she left the paper and the city over two years ago. I guess she left a legacy. Anyway, it makes me nostalgic.

While I’m dimly aware that some of the animosity directed towards her old Chicago Antisocial column has to with inside baseball that I’m happy to remain ignorant of, I think her column was misunderstood. And I misunderstood it, too, or at least remained unfortunately ambivalent about it for too long. As a prudish recluse who would have had to be scraped off the floor had I attended some of the parties she wrote about–I’ve met her once or twice briefly, since for awhile the Web editor cave was the official office mail-opening zone before it became storage–I didn’t pay the column much mind.

When I started working here, posting her column every week and formatting the pictures, I had to pay attention to it. And I realized I liked it: despite my above-all-things love for classical L7 literary journalism, I liked it a lot. Or, perhaps, because it’s part of that august tradition. As she wrote in her valedictory column, “I loved this job. I loved being paid to explore my city and talk to people who do whatever the fuck they want, and maybe inspire others to do the same.”

Let me explain what I think she’s getting at with “people who do whatever the fuck they want,” since I don’t think she did herself justice.

The media tend to measure the importance of a subject by a set of basic and very simple metrics–popularity, illegality, wealth, fame, power, clout, pathos, and so forth. The media theorist Jay Rosen has a useful analysis about how the media develop a spectrum of acceptable opinion from consensus to legitimate controversy to deviance (he’s particularly interested in the news media and the opinion industry, but I think it applies just as accurately to lifestyle and entertainment journalism). There are good reasons for this and bad ones too, but either way the result is a city or country reflected in a funhouse mirror of predictable extremes. RedEye is  the most dramatic example: when I pick it up, and I do sometimes, I’m seized by the notion that I’m holding a profoundly synthetic narrative of my city, a grand delusion made from truth.

Call it A Thousand and One Focus Groups.

Not everyone feels the need to be a part of the acceptable masscult/midcult pageant described by traditional journalism, however. Every year people are drawn from the city’s cultural and economic tributaries to “do whatever the fuck they want”: make weird art, play in bands that will never record anything, do drugs, dress crazy, throw parties, get by. It’s a vital facet of city life; empires are made from this (read The Satyricon). 

And for years a minority of journalists have documented life between the lines of the news. Ben Hecht’s 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago (there’s that idea again) was conceived in this spirit, and remains one of the great works of features journalism (“literary,” if you like). From Henry Justin Smith’s introduction:

“The idea that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of sky scrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards. . . . They are the writings of a reporter emancipated from the assignment book and the copy-desk; a reporter gone to the heaven of reporters, where they write what they jolly well please and get it printed too!”

It’s an idea that’s never gone away, because it’s important. The late, great Reader staff writer Grant Pick was one of its best practicioners. His second-to-last story, “The Power of the Keys” (available as a podcast here), is a moving and defiantly non-newsworthy portrait of someone doing whatever the fuck he wants to, which is to carry a chain of keys as a representation of his burdens. Pick also got over 10,000 engaging, vital words out of an eviction suit.

And he was certainly not alone in telling such stories for the Reader. I continue to maintain that the best writer in the city is longtime contributor Lee Sandlin (cf “Saving His Life,” “The Distancers,” “The Invisible Man”). One of the few good things to happen in the foul year of our Lord 2008 was the news that he signed a two-book deal with Pantheon. Former staff writer Edward McClelland could write newsy pieces on Bobby Rush and Barack Obama, but just as important to describing the life of the city is his ride-along on a Great Lakes freighter, “The Steel Sailors.”

At her best, Liz Armstrong wrote remarkable pieces in this vein. Among them: her profile of Peter Enger, cabdriver and karaoke obsessive; wanna-be icon Noah Wallace; and my favorite, a short portrait of G. “For a living G paints those paper signs you see in cheap grocery store windows, advertising sales on Heineken and corn and the like–you know, where half the text is always spelled wrong but they look amazing because the font is just slightly imperfect.”

Self-indulgent? Of course–everyone who writes a column or blog is self-indulgent (QED). Flawed and inconsistent? Surely–writing week in and week out is very, very hard, and doing it outside the bounds of rote models is even harder. No one writes a great column every week.

She picked a difficult and worthy project for herself and produced a number of fascinating, wholly alive miniatures from a vital but neglected aspect of our city while developing a compelling voice of her own. I cannot emphasize enough how difficult that is to do, and how grateful I am that people still try.