The tip of the local literary iceberg

June 7, 2011

Patrick Sommerville reading at the Hideout/Jacob S. Knabb

Printers Row Lit Fest is over and done but, please, think of it as just the tip of Chicago’s literary iceberg. What we have here is a vibrant clan of writers, inventive publishers, and independent bookstores (e.g., Women and Children First, Book Cellar, Quimby’s, to name a few) and bars (e.g., the Green Mill, the Hideout, the Jeffrey Pub) that host slams, readings, and salons where we talk about what we’re reading and what we’re working on. 

Ours is a tight-knit community that can lead to exciting collaborations, like novelist Patrick Somerville, author of The Cradle, and local alternative press Featherproof Books, known for its free web series of “storigami” books—origami books that you print out and fold into birds, or pigs, or a crumpled-up sheet of paper when you’re done reading. Together they produced Somerville’s newest book, Universe in Miniature in Miniature, as a mobile fold-out (not free!). Somerville explains he hasn’t abandoned Little, Brown, his first novel’s publisher, for Featherproof, but that he “wanted to put out a book with my friends here in Chicago and … this just felt like the right project and the right place.” 

Next up for Featherproof is a collaboration with musician/bartender Tim Kinsella which the press describes this way: “An irreducible collage, as intuitive as it is formal, The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense drifts between story lines and perspectives. Long bus rides through a post-industrial Gothic Midwest, Classic Rock, and compulsive brawls hum a requiem for the late night life of Stone Claw Grove.”

I think it’s because Chicago isn’t home to the big houses that there’s a freedom to be more experimental—as writers and as publishers. Presses like Other Voices, Stay Thirsty, and Third World, to name a few, are making available what’s not even looking to find a home in mainstream or even alternative presses. Cantankerous, for example, publishes both books and video, and is releasing a four-book box set next fall, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh, by Fulbright scholar and WBEZ alumna Anne Elizabeth Moore, about her adventures spreading the gospel of zines halfway across the world. 

And unique to Chicago is Contratiempo, a multifaceted literary force that has as its central mission promoting Spanish-language literary efforts. With a jam-packed monthly magazine (that’s had more than 100 uninterrupted issues), an imprint, an annual lit fest, and a series of on-going workshops – all in Spanish – Contratiempo is unlike any other Latino lit org in the country. Gerardo Cardénas, one of its leading forces, just published a story collection with the press in conjunction with Libros Magenta, a publishing house in Mexico. A veces llovía en Chicagis available through Amazon and other online retailers as well as Girón Books in Pilsen and The Book Table in Oak Park.