Printers Row Lit Fest Highlights

This year’s Lit Fest down in Chicago’s Printers Row was a little smaller than last year, as far as the number of exhibitors goes. The booths going up Dearborn Street did not stretch past Harrison Street, as they have in years past. And some of the booth space that did exist was taken up by an Acura dealer, a furniture maker, and a huge traveling exhibit that the Tribune trots out from the McCormick Freedom Foundation. I think the recession made it hard for bookstores to come a long way to exhibit there.

The Lit Fest is at a crossroads, I think, as many of these kinds of events are. I’m very grateful the Tribune sponsors so much of the festival, without a doubt, but is it mainly a used book fair, with a few panels and readings sprinkled in? Is it a place for writers to connect with readers, or to explore where publishing is headed? Is it always going to compete with the Chicago Blues Festival, and always take place in the rain? How does it complement or compete with Columbia College’s Story Week and the Chicago Humanities Festival? Time will tell. The name of the event was changed from “Book Fair” last year, to broaden everyone’s perception of what’s going on, and I hope it doesn’t pass away with the shrinking of the traditional publishing paradigm.

I was a participant in two events (pretty soon people are going to wonder when I’m actually going to publish something new, or whether I’m now a washed up eminence grise at 49). The first was the panel “Cubbie Blues,” with my friends from that compilation of 2008 (left to right in the photo) Rick Kaempfer, Donald Evans and Robert Goldsborough. Our main topic, within the context of why the Chicago Cubs still and always suck, was why baseball is the most literate of professional sports. We talked about baseball as a conduit for memoir (Cardboard Gods, which I just finished, is a great example of that), literature (ditto The Man with Two Arms by Billy Lombardo), and poetry. My conclusion, which no one bothered to refute, was that baseball had a monopoly on the public imagination for 60 years, until the advent of television, and baseball has so much down time, even during a game, that it allows reflection, and that allows for better writing. And the Cubs are an evergreen topic because, well, they are just so multifaceted in their losing. The stories seemingly never end.

I also sat in for part of a discussion of Get Capone with the author, Jonathan Eig, and Trib writer and WGN radio host Rick Kogan. As usual, it was riveting stuff, and Rick is probably the best interviewer in town. A mysterious transformation came over Jon, however, when during the interview he felt himself transformed into a figure from a Red Chinese propaganda poster, looking across the bountiful harvest toward a glorious future. Rick, of course, was nonplussed by this. Who wouldn’t be?

I spent the remainder of Saturday shopping, although I did take in the panel discussing mysteries and graphic novels. Some of the results of my shopping are below.

On Sunday, I had the privilege of being one of the judges at the first National Story Slam Competition, held at the Harold Washington Library. It was a terrific time. My friend Bill Hillmann has been running the Windy City Story Slam for almost three years, while at the same time other slam-type storytelling events have cropped up nationwide. So Bill managed to bring 9 champions from Oregon, Baltimore, South Carolina, Boston, and other places to compete. The winner, Nancy Donoval from Minneapolis, wove a captivating narrative about bone spurs, unicorns and regaining her virginity by proclamation by a friend (after it had been taken by force years before) that had heart, great narrative structure, humor and pain in wonderful amounts. She scored a 49.5 out of 50, so it was darn near perfect. You can read bios of all the competitors at the Story Slam website here. Nancy won the first belt from the judges, a huge gold girdle like a boxing champ can win. A second belt, given to the performer with the highest applause from the audience, was taken in a very very close competition by Chicago’s champ, Alex Bonner. The crowd of more than 200 were loud and appreciative. I’m really excited to check out more slams in the future.

So, shopping at the Lit Fest wasn’t too exciting this year. I think I was in a cheapskate frame of mind. I did buy a hardback copy of U of C Press’ The Chicagoan, but luckily it was marked down to half-price. The only other things I dived for were a few dusty paperbacks, to add to a ragtag collection I’ve somehow gotten of these titles over the years. First, I found a couple paperbacks from the “Get Smart” series, as shown below. This brings my collection of these up to five out of nine (I think). I passed on paperbacks of Chips, Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the Bobby Sherman Show.

Then, at my last stop on Sunday, I found a couple of old Dell Mysteries from the 1940s, the cool ones with the “Crime Map” on the back cover. These are pretty collectible, I guess, but I don’t want to get into all that stuff. I buy them if they amuse me, but how could anything printed with a “Crime Map” fail to amuse? I also liked the name of one of the authors, Zelda Popkin. It’s almost the same as Hellzapoppin’. Maybe she’s got a sister.

Riding the Long Tail of the eBook

Here’s an example of how quickly my brain pan cooks an egg. The Kindle has been out, what, three years now? And the iPad about a year?

Hmmm, nice little platforms, I’ve been musing. Electronic books might become a market for me sometime in the future, when I get a little footing again among the NY publishers. Then maybe, when I convince someone in NY to come out with a 20h anniversary edition of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, we can talk about how to use this platform to deliver more of my writing.

Only, publishers aren’t going to go for a 20th anniversary edition of PCBS, not unless I’ve got another book or three in the pipeline. And when you consider that the NY pipeline has been pretty uninterested in what I’ve been writing for the past decade (with one exception), it would look like the publishing establishment is not going to be much help in me getting my books to people more directly and instantaneously.

In other words, the middleman was not going to be much help in cutting out the middleman.


(Time passes, as I attach a drill to the mechanism of a large wall clock and make the hands spin in rapid comic fashion.)

Maybe I should do it myself.


Actually, I can’t even really take credit for this notion of releasing my out-of-print books as ebooks. After seeing his name in a story in TimeOut Chicago, I started browsing the website of Chicago writer JA Konrath, author of the “Jack Daniels” series of mystery novels. Konrath is a complete convert to the idea of selling ebooks at the same time as real tree carcasses. Hell, he’s a convert to giving the stories away free on his website. Go ahead, read his site and his blog, and see if you don’t become convinced that the new publishing paradigm is already here.

Konrath is a very prolific writer. I’m not, to my shame and chagrin. Because my output isn’t monumental, it’s always eaten away at me that my most popular books have been out of print since 1998. What a waste, and not just monetarily. I’m a Midwestern boy, Detroit-bred, and I like the idea of being productive and being thrifty. So why should I let my old books go to waste, just because a decade ago they needed more shelf space in the warehouse?

This ebook idea has charged me up like nothing in the past year. I don’t expect much in revenue from them, I just want the people who want to read them to be able to do so, and for me to get my vig. Getting credit for the stories that spawned a hundred imitators is also a big motivator. “Little Red Riding Hood” and the rest of them often pop up on people’s websites, usually intact and credited. (“Red” is also by far the story most reprinted in Literature textbooks, FWIW.) Why people do that, I don’t know. It used to bug me a little, but now I’m grateful, for the following reason.

The original electronic files for Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, Once Upon a More Enlightened Time, and Politically Correct Holiday Stories are nowhere to be found. For all I know, they’re still on some 5″ floppy disk somewhere, but I can’t find them. I can find reams and reams of paper and floppies for book ideas that never panned out, let alone got published, but the ur-files for PCBS are missing.

I was faced with a long boring session of retyping the stories so they could be transferred to the proper types of files, until I realized that other people had already done much of this for me. Fans out there through the years have been posting the stories around the web — all I have to do is collect them and compare them to the printed versions. Howzy! No scanning, OCR, or voice software to wrestle with!

So this is a thank-you to those folks who took the time to type up my stories for me, with the intent of sharing them with the world. I intend to share them too, with a little fee added on. I’m not QUITE there yet with the idea of giving them all away. But we’ll see what the future brings.

The Armando Galarraga Saga

Last night’s blown call by umpire Jim Joyce, which took away Armando Galarraga’s perfect game, will be talked about for years, by bitter Tiger fans crying about how their team can’t get a break, and paranoids and conspiracy fans everywhere.

But I’ve argued before that baseball is filled with human error (hell, if there’s a statistic for “Errors”. then it must be a big part of the game). I’m not too much in favor of the instant replay, though it seems to have been integrated well into the action. My heart wants Galarraga to get credit for his efforts, but my head says that it is what it is. I can’t start changing my attitude just because a Tiger was involved, and just because the umpire got the yips and got confused about THE ONLY THING HE’S GOT TO PAY ATTENTION TO WHEN HE’S WORKING ON FIRST BASE!!!!!!

Ahem. Sorry.

I was frankly impressed with both the player and the umpire this morning. How many people in public life, caught in a big mistake, just come out and say it was their fault, and that their decision will haunt them the rest of their lives? (When was the last time you heard a politician or a CEO, our national “leaders”, say such a thing, at least when it still mattered?)

And how many players showed Galarraga’s grace and character in the face of a crushing disappointment? My hat’s off to him.

Here’s a little piece of doggerel I whipped up for the brouhaha on Bardball this morning, hoping to earn points for timeliness if not :

Nobody’s Perfect

After the call that the umpire blew,
What could Armando Galarraga do?

Drag him to court in front of a judge,
Since now his market value was smudged?

Argue some kind of liberal plot?
Threaten to meet Joyce in the parking lot?

Hire a hit man to mangle his mug?
Break down on “Oprah” to get some O-hugs?

Threaten his wife, kids, brothers and sisters?
Publish his home phone number on Twitter?

Beg ol’ Bud Selig for some Commissioner’s magic?
Hire some flacks for his story so tragic?

Buy off some pols to rewrite the rules?
Sic Milton Bradley on his family jewels?

But Armando showed character larger than fame.
He smiled, shook hands and went on with the game.

More Unwritten Rules of Baseball

Put this up yesterday on The reference to the Alex Rodriguez/Dallas Braden dustup is more than a month old, but it’s not always easy to be as timely and topical over there as we’d like. Lots of voices to corral, and egos to massage, and styles to balance. But really, Bardball gets better with every season, if I do say so myself.

Don’t congratulate a teammate by faking a high five and delivering a hard nad shot.

Don’t talk about racism except in the context of how Jackie Robinson eliminated it.

Rhapsodize about the integrity of the game, but don’t make any big deal about desperately poor Dominican 15-year-olds being drafted by shady agents and advised by “scouts.”

Don’t try and bunt against a pitcher pitching a perfect game unless, you know, you’re trying to help your team score. Like you’re paid to do.

On-field displays of excitement add too much energy and character to the game, and so must be avoided.

Don’t ever criticize a veteran teammate in the media, even when he lets down the squad. Only rookies can be criticized.

Don’t comment on the herd mentality and obsequious jocksniffery of sportswriters.

And however long you play or watch the game….

Don’t expect to like Alex Rodriguez.