The London-based Granta “magazine of new writing” has devoted its 108th issue to the city of Chicago. The special issue, whose release was celebrated with a week of local events in September, promises a tour of Chicago during its “cultural moment,” in the words of its editor, John Freeman. Freeman has claimed the issue will be successful if it gives its readers a feel for “exactly what the city is like,” although it should also succeed as a “work of art.” The question of whether literature with the same aspirations as tourism could qualify as art is not asked by Granta’s Chicago issue, although it is answered by it.
The reader hoping to gain insight into Chicago will be disappointed by Granta’s special issue; more disappointing still will be her insight into the condition of the contemporary narrative arts. There are 20 articles in the Granta Chicago issue, most involving some combination of narrative and reportage, although one comprises primarily photographs and a few short works are classified with headings such as: “Winter” and “The View from the South Side, 1970.” Each story has its own title page, but Granta offers no category headings. Surprisingly, this becomes a problem. The articles are so casually constructed and “realistic” that readers will find themselves unable to determine whether many of them are fiction, journalism, or memoir. Aleksander Hemon’s opening piece about the narrator’s discovery of a multi-ethnic soccer game on the west side may well be a story, or it may be memoir—it is impossible to tell. The same can be said for Thom Jones’s short account of a teenager working in a General Mills cereal plant. Ditto for Bei Dao’s story about the Zhou brothers, two Chinese artists living in Bridgeport, as well as Tony D’Souza’s “Mr. Harris,” which describes a suburban boy’s run-in with a black man from the West Side.
One gets the impression from Granta that contemporary narrative art can be delivered only in a generic, digestible formula made up of two parts memoir and one part short story. From the memoir Granta’s contributors borrow a colloquial style and an earnest, first-person voice: “I came to this fine country from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina, in the winter of 1992” (Hemon); “When I first came to America in the autumn of 1988, I met the Zhou brothers in Chicago” (Dao); “Once when I was sixteen I went down to the North Avenue Beach to hook up with two West Side Hispanic girls I’d met at a rave” (D’Souza). From the twentieth-century short story they borrow a structure: the beginning in medias res, the end an epiphany set off by flourishes of vague or portentous language: “Then it was just me and the big cool dark and no wind near at all, as still, as small and safe and warm as the place where I laid as a small sick child” (Nelson Algren); “So this, gentlemen, is what this little narrative is about… the moment arising from the chaos of the game, when all your teammates occupy the ideal position on the field; the moment when the universe seems to be arranged by a meaningful will that is not yours” (Hemon).
The blurring of genres reflects Granta’s underlying assumption that its readers will follow only a certain kind of story told by a certain kind of narrator. A nascent sentimentalism hangs over the whole collection, which eschews complex language, themes and emotions. In place of challenging ideas or feelings, Granta’s authors substitute liberal platitudes regarding tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. As will be discernible from even the brief quotations above, the primary subject of Granta’s Chicago issue is ethnicity; its primary ambition, diversity.
Within the stories, diversity seems to be good because privileged white people should be forced out of their comfort zones, but also because minorities should be able to stay in theirs. This means a multi-ethnic soccer game is good, because it allows foreigners from lots of different countries to separate themselves from white Americans, while a car accident involving a black man can be good and enlightening for a suburban white boy (even though the black man blackmails him) since it brings him out of his suburban bubble, where nothing interesting happens because there is no diversity. Dao’s story, “Once Upon a Time the Zhou Brothers,” is about how good it is that there are two established Chinese artists in Bridgeport, since they provide food and comfort for other Chinese artists, who might otherwise feel alienated or lost in Chicago. Neil Steinberg’s character study of an old-style Irish politician, “Driving with Ed McElroy,” is distracted by details such as the fact that blacks are now allowed in an Irish bar in Bridgeport (good), yet still eyed warily by the Irish owner of the bar (bad).
That Granta fetishizes cultural diversity in its Chicago issue does not make it unique. In this respect the issue mirrors the majority of what today passes for serious literature. Anyone who has been in a college English class or keeps up with the New Yorker’s weekly fiction knows that contemporary narrative has become the art valued for granting everyone a voice and introducing its consumers to a panoply of exotic characters and experiences. This means that if one is going to do a collection of stories about Chicago, one must have portraits of Irish politicians, feminist reformers, black musicians, Chinese artists and Mexican mothers. This is what is of interest about Chicago, or any city, to the contemporary fiction writer, and Granta has all of it, and more.
As such, it is fruitful to ask what such a collection hopes to accomplish, remembering that Granta, an expensive literary journal (mine cost $17), addresses a predominantly white, educated readership. Granta’s editors and writers seem to assume it is important for this readership to be challenged by the stories of minorities and foreigners who have it harder than themselves. It is important for them to know about the difficulties of emigrating to the United States and it is naturally important for such people—in relation to the city of Chicago—to be exposed to the plight of poor black people living in urban ghettos. Such stories are told in the Chicago issue via a series of photographs by Camilo José Vergara (“The Projects”) and an essay by Alex Kotlowitz (“Khalid”). These aim to supply Granta’s readers with approximately the same thrill as a commissioned tour through the slums of New Delhi or Rio de Janeiro— tours not available for our American ghettos, except through the kind of literature that conflates itself with tourism.
What this kind of literature— let’s call it “touristic literature”— should not be mistaken for is an old and accomplished genre called “travel literature” (practiced admirably by artists like V.S. Naipaul, Jan Morris and Paul Theroux), just like contemporary tourism should not be mistaken for an older activity called traveling. The traveler is precisely not interested in a guided “tour” of her chosen destination; moreover it is impossible for her to conceive of her activity without any risk or challenge to herself. Likewise, the travel writer knows there is a point to observing alien practices, which is to judge and compare them with one’s own (the risk being not physical but intellectual). But tourism, like the fetishization of the alien in fiction, ascribes value to simply seeing the exotic thing— which observation it makes simple and easy. The tourist and the reader of touristic literature have this in common: they are never compelled to examine themselves.
This leads us to an interesting omission in Granta’s Chicago issue. Granta, which suggests that the flavor of Chicago resides in its various subcultures, does not introduce its educated white readers to one subculture: that of educated white people. This despite the fact that perhaps the most striking development in Chicago’s recent past has been the steady colonization of the old ethnic neighborhoods by an alliance of post-collegiate professionals intent on remaking the city in the dueling (but mutually dependent) images of the campus coffee shop and the Big 10 fraternity quad. We learn nothing about that subculture in Granta’s Chicago issue, nor do we ever come across phrases such as: “Gold Coast,” “One Mag Mile,” “Lincoln Park,” “River West,” “Wicker Park,” “Evanston,” or “Rush Street.” Bellow’s intellectuals are nowhere to be found in Granta’s Chicago issue, which also excludes advertising executives, futures traders and real estate moguls. I am not claiming such types should be represented for the sake of fairness. The point is only that Granta, which wants to convey to its readers a feel for Chicago, ignores the people who might actually resemble its readers—and who, for better or worse, today make virtually everything happen in Chicago. So Granta fails as tourism too. Or, Granta reproduces the failures of the kind of tourism which elicits appreciation and pity, but never self-reflection.
Granta’s Chicago issue nevertheless delivers one excellent story. Another of the pieces which blurs the line between memoir and fiction, Dinaw Mengetsu’s “Big Money” is well-written, moving, and about something other than diversity. Mengetsu’s narrator is an Ethiopian boy who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but the story is not about him being Ethiopian. The story is about what happens when the boy, after moving to Brooklyn to be a writer, is called back to Chicago to manage his sick father’s delivery business. Mengetsu has something to say regarding the task of being a young person with artistic aspirations in Chicago. Beyond that, he probes the criteria we use to distinguish a real life from a false one—a mental task virtually omnipresent in the modern city. Is it more “authentic” or admirable to be involved in the daily grind of commerce and production, or is it better to hold oneself aloof from what can seem from a distance to be various illusions of importance?
Perhaps I liked “Big Money” because it was about a life I could “identify” with (I’m a young person in Chicago who once had artistic aspirations), although the narrator and I share nothing according to the rubrics of ethnicity or class. The story works, though, precisely because it creatively addresses problems familiar to Granta’s readers— defined not by ethnicity but in terms of shared aspiration, social practice and perspective. It was the only story in the collection that made me re-think my attitude toward a phenomenon of urban life, including the half-conscious biases at the foundation of that attitude. Its success points toward the flawed premise behind so much contemporary literature—the premise that liberal, educated readers will actually be forced from their comfort zones by stories of ghettoized children, lost boys, displaced families or destitute Asian peasants. Said readers are the same people who studied abroad in college and now travel the world at great expense in search of whatever is most foreign, exotic or “other.”
A truly relevant literature would recognize that an educated western reader is still more challenged by The Great Gatsby than she is by Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, or Dave Eggers’s What Is the What. Or Granta’s Chicago issue. This does not mean such books are useless—they can have a social function, just like tourism can. But just like tourism denotes a specific mode of interaction excluding genuine risk or entanglement, so touristic literature addresses its readers in a manner which excludes a truly challenging encounter.
It is probably perverse, mean-spirited or indulgent to be so hard on Granta’s Chicago issue. After all, it was an innovative marketing idea, and an act of generosity toward a city which garners too little literary attention. The publication is no worse than dozens of others which churn out rosters of mediocre fiction and reporting, often many times a year. This is why it is necessary to take a stand somewhere. It is not good enough for fiction to imitate tourism or journalism, and even worse when it does so badly. Good literature either communicates original feelings or challenges its readers, including their unstated prejudices and habits of thought. Yet Mengetsu’s story aside, Granta’s Chicago issue offers its readers the familiar pleasures of affirmation and pity. Surely in this difficult time we should support print publications like Granta, since there are fewer and fewer of them, and they are courageous and important enterprises. But we should also demand that they be courageous and important.