Sun-Times: The Novel

A whiff of scandal sells books. Unfortunately for Charles Dickinson’s new novel, Rumor Has It, now at your local bookstore, its whiff is pretty much undetectable beyond the confines of the Chicago Sun-Times. And the scandalized there all read the book last fall in galleys.

“There must have been a dozen people in line for my copy,” said reporter Mary Gillespie, one of the friends to whom Dickinson had galleys sent.

Of course everyone at the Sun-Times queued up. They were looking for themselves in Dickinson’s characters. But now Dickinson seeks a wider audience, one that pays. We’re not sure there was ever a vast public for a down-and-dirty roman a clef that lifts the lid off Chicago’s tabloid. And Dickinson hasn’t helped his book along by making it literature instead of sleaze. Rumor Has It’s Chicago Bugle–a doleful place, threadbare, tawdry, and on the rocks–is indeed the Sun-Times flimsily disguised. But Dickinson tells his tale with his usual elegance, dabbling in magic realism when he could have been flirting with libel.

It’s easy to see why the book stirred up the Sun-Times. Six years there as a copy editor, Dickinson followed through on the empty vow of legions of newspapermen everywhere and actually wrote a book about the nutty place where he worked. The novel is the story of the day, which happens to be Halloween, when management announces that it is shutting the Bugle down.

“Aside from who’s who or who’s supposed to be who, I think it’s a very accurate portrayal of what it was like to be there,” says Dickinson. “They say it’s better since [editor Dennis] Britton and his team moved in, but for six years it was constant turmoil, constant wondering if the paper was going to be sold, constant circulation going down. That’s my memory of it.”

Trust his memory. Dickinson’s years spanned the reigns of Rupert Murdoch and Robert Page and Leonard Shaykin, of editors who on a given day might be Charlie White from Scotland or Frank Devine from Australia or Matt Storin from Boston or Ken Towers from Coventry. “The Sun-Times is still in business, and in that sense it’s not as desperate as the Bugle is,” says Dickinson. “But I would stand by what it was like to work there. It was that way right up to the day I walked out of there.”

His walkout’s a sticky matter. Dickinson exited in late summer 1989, and he did not go aimlessly. Perturbed by labor negotiations then dragging on between Sun-Times management and the Newspaper Guild–“I think they treated us like dirt,” says Dickinson–he made inquiries at the Tribune. One day his Sun-Times friends surprised him with a party to celebrate his latest book, The Widows’ Adventures. “That was really nice,” he says. The very next day the Tribune called back. Soon he was gone.

So do those friends now feel a little bit exploited and abandoned? Dickinson fears they do, although he insists that as he wrote Rumor Has It he assumed he’d be at the Sun-Times when it was published. It is not a happy occasion when your old comrade in arms throws in with the enemy, and from the foe’s gothic redoubt rains ridicule on you, even speaking aloud your darkest nightmare, which is your employer going out of business.

“It’s gotten mixed reviews,” says Dickinson, who’s taken soundings at the Sun-Times. “I don’t know if people have hurt feelings and see this as a way of getting back at me, or if they honestly don’t like it. If I was still working there, I’d be able to get all this firsthand rather than through other people.”

Dickinson says that to his regret, no one at the Sun-Times who received galleys of Rumor Has It, no one but Mary Gillespie, picked up the telephone. “I heard secondhand a lot of them didn’t like it,” he reports. “I think when someone sends you the book, at least you owe them the courtesy of calling and saying what you thought of it. Or at least writing a note. I respond to all the books I get.”

Dickinson has now reread Rumor Has It “with an eye to what it would be like if someone from the Sun-Times was reading a book written by someone at the Tribune, and I can see where they might think I was denigrating their product, making fun of where they work.

“But as far as the characters are concerned, I didn’t have a problem with them. I think even the ones I’ve been told are more negatively portrayed came out pretty well. They’re out of jobs and skewered, but they’re still kind of feisty and tough. And they’re newspaper people, and they’ll work again somewhere else.”

So the Sun-Times gang shouldn’t feel ticked off. “I wrote it almost as a tribute to them–and to me, because I was one of them when I wrote it.”

Our own soundings indicate that Dickinson’s intentions aren’t altogether lost on his pals. The hypersensitive artist might be making too much of the snorting and kvetching. “I think it’s a savage satire–overdrawn, but drawn from what life was like back then,” said reporter Tom McNamee. “My only concern is that people won’t understand it’s like two different newspapers–what we are now, and what we were then” (“then” being the era that ended when editor Dennis Britton took over several weeks after Dickinson left).

Dickinson concedes that “there are some people in the book I may not have hidden as well as I should have.” One of them not hidden at all is photo chief Dale Busse, a transparent facsimile of the Sun-Times’s Robin Daughtridge.

“Dale Busse shrugged under the pads on her shoulders. She wore silk blouses every day, buttons left strategically undone.” The scene is the early morning news conference. Busse is asked about the availability of a certain photographer. She replies, “He’s got Suzy Slutmuffin at Field’s at one. Pelvic thrusts. Powdery sweat in the cleavage.”

Daughtridge read the galleys that Dickinson gallantly sent her. “I thought, “Oh God, Charlie! You remember all of those stupid little phrases!”‘ But she’s not mad. “I get to add a little comic relief, which is kind of my aim in life,” she reasoned. “I didn’t see his portrayal of me as unflattering. The only thing is, he portrayed me as wearing silk blouses every day. I guess guys don’t understand the difference between rayon and silk. Which is fine.”

What concern Dickinson now are the reviews. For all the quiet dignity that’s come his way as a New Yorker contributor and writer of books, he’d like his prose to begin making him a semblance of a living. “If there’s one review that’s vital, the Tribune is it,” he says. “More so than the New York Times. I think they’re expecting to sell mostly in Chicago.”

Dickinson can certainly be forgiven for taking advantage of where he works to call up the (still forthcoming) Tribune review on his terminal. Bad news, he tells us. Jon Anderson ripped him. (Which may be true or may be more artistic thin-skinnedness. We ran into Anderson on the street, and he said he liked the book.)

But Dickinson is used to catching it on the home front. The Sun-Times reviewed all three of his previous novels, and two of them–Crows and The Widows’ Adventures–were not praised. Book editor Henry Kisor ran those reviews as unobtrusively as space allowed, but he ran them. It would be wrong not to, he told Dickinson.

Here’s the rub. Dickinson’s heard (and we’ve heard) that Kisor is so uncomfortable with Rumor Has It he intends to ignore it. That strikes us as a serious, and unlikely, mistake, but Kisor won’t flatly deny it. His position is that he never tells publishers and publicists in advance what books he’s going to review, and he can’t tell us either.

“When Crows and The Widows’ Adventures were both sent out for review,” says Dickinson, “he said he had to run them regardless. And now, with what could be construed as a bad review of his place, he doesn’t review it.”

If Henry Kisor had assigned us to write the review, it would glow. Wise, wry, poignant, we’d announce, remembering our own years at the Sun-Times during the 70s and resisting the temptation to add, “with an evocative rendition of the fourth-floor corridor.”

WFMT: The Parable

John Callaway, host of Chicago Tonight and one of the handful in the local media athenaeum, writes a column each month on the last page of Eleven, WTTW’s monthly magazine. This month he offers a parable.

His putative subject is the New Yorker, his favorite magazine. He allows that in the last years of the great William Shawn the editorial matter became often “interminable,” often “less than timely if not substantially irrelevant to the lives of the readers,” yet he remained one of the “New Yorker zealots” who feared when Shawn was sacked that the new editor “would defile our precious publication.”

Which Robert Gottlieb has not done, Callaway confesses. The “dry rot” is gone, and the institution is better than ever.

A page is a good deal of space to give to a magazine that has nothing to do with Chicago, but of course that is not Callaway’s real subject. “There is a lesson here,” he writes. “To those whose unhappy fate it is to find themselves presiding over an assignment to change a cultural institution that is mismanaged and out of date and out of touch, beware that you are walking in a cultural fundamentalist mine field. Those who fell in love with the doddering institution are probably blind to its deficits, its outdatedness, and its clogged cultural arteries. Those loyalists are probably for the most part very astute, change-oriented persons who would not for a minute tolerate the atrophy of their own business or family affairs . . . ”

John Callaway, he acknowledged, has finally added his two cents’ worth to the debate on WFMT. “It’s my way of writing about it without writing about it,” he told us. “Otherwise I look like I’m writing out of a vested interest. But I felt a need to address myself to that issue.”

WTTW and WFMT are both owned by the Chicago Educational Television Association, which the zealous Friends of WFMT has maintained treats the fine-arts station like a useless stepchild. But the feuding formally ended last month; the two sides signed an out-of-court agreement that gives the Friends representation on a committee that oversees the radio station. A trifling price was paid for this settlement. Each side signed away its First Amendment right to go to the media and bitch about the other.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nancy Stone.