I recently had the opportunity to talk to book critic, author, and fellow Gapers Block alumnus, Adam Morgan, about his newly launched site, Chicago Review of Books. As a lit-loving localvore, few things get me more excited than local books and authors. In Chicago, there’s so much attention given to live lit, performance, and publishing, but few sites devoted solely to books. Chicago Review of Books intends to cover a diverse collection of writers from Chicago, and the world at large. My interview with Adam is below.
ET: I don’t edit a website, but I do edit 3CR’s Lit section, and I think when editing there’s always a vision for obviously the way something ought to be read, but also the way it should be used. Why should someone read these articles and what can the articles give them? How do you see Chicago Review of Books being used by its visitors? What’s its intended purpose?
AM: We want [CHIRB] to start conversations about books. Through reviews, interviews with writers, publishers, agents, artists, and academics, through feature stories and listicles and everything else.
Which is a hard thing to instill in contributors…that notion of talking about books in a way that will generate responses from other readers, of really putting your opinions out there. A lot of people, when they first start writing about books, write these pseudo-generic descriptions of the story, heavy on summary, instead of really wrestling with the subject matter, the writer’s objectives, and the narrative and aesthetic decisions that were made. A good book review says something substantive about the book that lets people know what they’re in for if they buy it, and also contributes to the cultural conversation in a way that makes the site valuable.
ET: Amen. Do you see CHIRB filling some formerly empty niche?
AM: Well, Chicago is lucky enough to have a vibrant literary community, so we’ve already got literary coverage at the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Newcity Lit, and the Chicago Book Review, plus occasional articles in the Chicago Reader, Chicagoist, TimeOut, etc.
For the most part, Printers Row covers Big 5 books, and the other sites I mentioned are hyperlocal in their coverage, which is necessary and great. But I wanted a literary review dedicated (mostly) to smaller, independent, and university presses, to books that weren’t already being examined to death by major outlets, but were still relevant and worthy of attention. I wanted to split about half our time on Chicago-related stories and half our time elsewhere. And I wanted to promote diversity in the literary world by talking about diverse writers, diverse settings, and diverse genres, including science fiction, fantasy, and comics in addition to “literary” fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
ET: So is CHIRB inspired by any other reviews or sites? Do you see it becoming something like the New York Review of Books which has all kinds of non-literary related content down to personal ads?
AM: The two sites I was inspired by the most were Bookslut and Electric Literature. They both celebrate smart books by diverse writers in diverse genres. Bookslut was founded by Jessa Crispin when she lived in Chicago, and it was my first byline as a 24-year-old book critic. I’m not nearly as smart or silver-tongued as Jessa, but I loved how passionate she was about books and how she was covering smaller presses and university presses in a day and age when most popular book blogs only covered the Big 5 (or 6, at the time). And then Electric Literature has that same sort of passion and intellectual spirit, that same dedication to diversity in every sense of the word.
So yeah, at least in the near-future, I don’t see us being as politically engaged as the NYRB. Our main goal is to start conversations about books from diverse authors and publishers, written in diverse forms and genres, featuring diverse ideas and settings. There’s nothing wrong with writers in New York City, or alums of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or writers dedicated to domestic realism in the vein of Franzen. We just feel they’re over-represented in literary coverage compared to the rest of the vast, colorful, wild and dangerous forest of world literature
ET: Who writes for the site?
AM: Mostly MFA alums and MFA students right here in Chicago, along with some librarians, writing professors, and freelancers. In the next month, however, we’re expanding our contributors, not just throughout the Midwest, but also in Canada and Africa.
My hope is that we’ll eventually have more international writers. Diverse voices is part of our mission, not just in the books we cover but in our contributing staff as well. It’s important for me that the site reflect as many cultures and continents and perspectives as well, not just the white MFA crowd.
ET: So if someone wanted to write for CHIRB, how would they join the staff?
AM: To join the staff as a contributor, all you have to do is email firstname.lastname@example.org with links to a few writing samples. We encourage writing students and writers without a long list of bylines to query us as well as more experienced ones. Right now, I’m doing almost all of our interviews and feature stories, so I’m hoping we can increase the size of our staff so that eventually I’m most just editing. I have a full-time job (and a baby on the way) on top of the CHIRB, so the amount of time I’m putting into it right now probably isn’t sustainable!
ET: What’s the best thing you’ve written for the site so far?
Personally, I’ve only reviewed two books for the site so far, Abby Geni’s The Lightkeepers and Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses. I was really happy with the way my interview with Chicago author Ethan Michaeli turned out, as well as my chat with the founders of Unnamed Press.
As for our contributors, we’ve had some really great pieces. Aaron Coats did a great job reviewing Lovecraft Country, so much so that Matt Ruff and even Christopher Moore both shared it on Twitter and Facebook. Mark Magoon’s poetry reviews read like poetry themselves. Our fiction editor, Lauren Yamaoka, has a real ear for YA that I don’t.
In the next few months, we’ll be covering AWP, CHF, BEA, and expanding our staff to include more international contributors, so I’m excited about the future of the site. My hope is that we become a bigger, louder part of the literary and cultural conversation, and eventually get some funding via a grant.
I second that hope. Thanks Adam for taking the time to talk with me about Chicago Review of Books.
Check out their recent post about children’s book If You Find This, and other great literary content at http://chireviewofbooks.com/. I like the coverage of children’s and young adult texts the most because there really aren’t a lot of reviews that pay attention to kids books and say anything insightful about kids books, so it’s awesome that CHIRB pays attention. Even if you aren’t into children’s lit, the grown up stuff is great too. They even cover non-fiction!