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Events Mon Jun 11 2012

Notes On The Printers Row Lit Fest

Printer's Row 2012.jpgSo another Printers Row Lit Fest has come and gone. Needing to watch my pocketbook, I kept browsing to a minimum. I saw the Poetry Foundation tent, the McSweeney's tent, a fellow singing French tunes, a puppet show and things that didn't seem to have much to do with books (Stanley Steemer? An ABBA musical?). It was a sweltering weekend; I split a cookie with a friend and it was so melty the chocolate got everywhere and I felt like Frankenstein caught while attacking a sheep. Luckily the panels I penciled in to attend were indoors and air conditioned.

The first was the "Changes in Reading and Writing" panel presented by WBEZ in the Fountain Room at the University of Chicago.

On hand were JC Gabel, former Stop Smiling and current Chicagoan editor in chief; Gretchen Kalwinski, editor at The Chicagoan, freelance writer and novelist-in-progress; and Wailin Wong, business reporter at the Chicago Tribune. The moderator was Donna Seaman, associate editor of the American Library Association's Booklist magazine. The general consensus seemed to be that of distrust and dislike of the trend toward moving content online, yet a grudging acceptance that this is the reality one must now swim in to survive. Gabel said he decided to revive The Chicagoan (originally a less-successful New Yorker that folded in 1935, brought back into attention through Neil Harris' 2008 book) as a direct result of the frustrations he felt at the lack of opportunity for long-form freelance journalism. "I had a sense of 'if you build it, will they come?'" he said.

The magazine sold fairly well through guerilla marketing tactics. "We sold in mom and pop shops and made pop-up newsstands and sold them directly out of trucks which we announced on our Twitter feed." He says they originally didn't sell it in big stores, "but there aren't really so many big book stores any more. There's no more Borders, Virgin or Tower Records." When Barnes and Noble expressed interest in stocking the magazine, he remembered thinking, "No offense, but we don't really need you." Eventually he relented, "but we insisted on giving them the same discount as everyone else." The Chicagoan is intended to be a bit iconoclastic, a beautifully produced magazine full of long-form stories, a sort of nostalgia for the way publishing used to be. Yet they must embrace technology to survive. Gabel mentioned several different subscription tiers that were available for the magazine; twice-yearly print version only or longer stories sold as individual e-books (such as their 47 page oral history of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert).

Kalwinski agreed. "Publications these days are more interested in clicks on web pages to sell advertising rather than telling good stories." She mentioned personally knowing lots of people laid off from The Chicago Reader due to this business model shift, including Tori Marlan, who wrote a fabulous 2002 piece about Scientology. "When I was at Time Out Chicago," Kalwinski said, "I thought up a theme of The Polish Issue. Chicago is only second to Warsaw in its Polish population, but the advertising department just couldn't get advertisers interested. My idea went from a theme issue to a sidebar on the cover.'" Wong mentioned how everyone is so trackable now with e-readers. "There's a function for people to check out the most highlighted text in kindle readers and the number one was from The Hunger Games: 'Sometimes bad things happen and we're not equipped to deal with them.' It's cool to have this information, but depressing to read about what most readers are interested in." A joke was made about how "there is no Big Brother, people are now willingly sharing all their information online."

All four panelists agreed that the copy editing work they did didn't feel "real" unless it was done on paper and not a screen. In fact, Gabel insists his staff do this, "otherwise they'll be distracted by e-mail or Twitter or 100 other things." My friend pointed out the talk might've been a bit more balanced if it had a Generation Y panelist for counterpoint, someone who had less mixed feelings about technology and no attachment to "the way things were." Overall the panel was fascinating if somewhat depressing.

The other panel I made it to was "Desperate Characters," featuring three authors drawn to such in their work. On hand were John Warner (The Funny Man), Joseph Peterson (Beautiful Piece) and Dan Barden (The Next Right Thing). The moderator was teacher and writer Frank Tempone.

Each author talked about their writing process and read passages from their novels, handpicked by Tempone. Barden read a passage from his novel about a racist ex-cop struggling with AA and out to avenge the death of his friend. Joseph Peterson was described by Tempone as "a cross between Bukowski, Hemingway and Dr. Seuss." Peterson read a reflective, stream-of-consciousness passage from his novel about a shut-in's doomed relationship. I could sort of see what was meant by the comparison - down-on-their-luck characters in a writing style with lots of musing and deliberate repetition. Warner, an editor-at-large at McSweeney's Internet Tendency, read from The Funny Man, the tale of an insta-celebrity gone wrong (the character is told, "If the world were a better place, we never would have heard of you.")

The writers talked of their writing methods and their attraction to desperate characters. "Characters have to want something. What are the obstacles to their desire? That, to me is where a story comes from." Peterson and Warner both insisted they're nice guys and not like their characters. "I mean, really, I lead the most boring life you could imagine," Warner said. "I am not a nice guy and have a lot of dark thoughts to fight," Barden quipped. The writers bonded over how long their novels took to write (eight years for Barden, seven and change for Warner; Peterson didn't say). Warner mentioned John Irving's The Water Method Man as a particular influence on his book; specifically, the device of shifting back and forth from third person to first person. Barden picked up on that and said "yeah, I really loved The Water Method Man. I always considered John Irving the greatest American novelist that's not all that talented. And I found that so inspiring; that he achieved what he did through sheer hard work. I read his novels and think 'I can do that.'" The panel concluded with a book signing in the back.

With that it was back on the El home for the "Mad Men" finale. A great day full of interesting, free (and air conditioned!) perspectives on publishing and writing.

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