In response to coverage of the cancellation of Story Week

By Letter to the Editor, by Eric May

Let me start by saying I have no beef with Courtney Zellars; she’s a good writer and an excellent addition to the Fiction MFA program; however, in her letter to the editor (Response to coverage of Story Week) which was a response to The Columbia Chronicle story from the week before (Nov. 13) about there being no Story Week this school year, there were a few of her statements that I feel compelled to respond to.

Courtney questioned my observation that appeared in the Nov. 13 article that the reading series the Department of Creative Writing has presented this year does not have, “the width and breadth” of Story Week. Courtney wrote: “This is true in that [the current reading series] doesn’t allow people to connect and engage with the city as much since all the events are held on campus. But other than that, the same opportunities are still presented.”

Not true. Story Week 2015, as in years past, offered students a lot more than opportunities to engage the city—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

For instance, in addition to presenting a publishing panel of experts, this year’s SW presented six “Publishing Bootcamps,” 45-minute sessions conducted by a professional editor,  agent, or publisher. The bootcamps were: Making Books in the Midwest, Editing/Acquisitions, the literary agent/author process, reviewing books, book publishing [and] social media in regards to book promotion.

Per usual for Story Week, there was an undergraduate open mic and a graduate student reading, the latter organized by an MFA Fiction graduate student.

All this, in addition to nine other events—readings, conversations, panels—that covered a wide range of literary forms and issues that included Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Memoir and Fiction, Fighting Violence, Young Adult Fiction, Turning Issues Into Story, and Playwriting. And of course, there were the festival’s signature events, the 2nd Story reading/music event at Martyrs’, Chicago Classics at the Cultural Center, and the Literary Rock & Roll show at Metro, which this year included a tribute to the late Frankie Knuckles, “the godfather” of Chicago house music.

In all, the SW 2015 lineup numbered more than 60 featured guests, among them Chris Abani, Edwidge Danticat, Samantha Irby, Mitchell S. Jackson, Marlon James, Audrey Neffenegger and Regina Taylor. 

This was the width and breadth I was referring to. Courtney also stated that Story Week “should seek to meet the needs of undergraduate and graduate students.” I don’t see how exposing creative writing students to the talent and wisdom of an abundance of writers, editors, publishers, playwrights and agents is not meeting students’ needs.

A lot of the crucial work that goes into putting on something like Story Week involves stuff graduate students don’t know how to do or shouldn’t be doing: Negotiating with hotels for the best rates for visiting artists for instance, booking and coordinating events with venues, publishers and performers, handling W-9 forms for featured guest honorariums, negotiating with literary agents, creating an Ad Plan, handling the 100-some invoices the event produces, handling certificates of liability insurance documents for venues and copy editing numerous PR documents on tight deadlines.

Story Week was the second-largest literary festival in Chicago after Printer’s Row. Giving tasks to creative writing grad students that they don’t how to do would have been of no help to anybody; and there was no time for on-the-job-training. You need staff and/or professional outside help to handle the sorts of things listed above. This year, with the Creative Writing Department down to two staff people after the lay-offs of this past summer, our two-person team has all it can handle with the day-in, day-out logistics of a three-program department.

I understand that this school year all of Columbia’s academic programs are operating under reduced budgetary circumstances, and the organizers of the department author series did the best they could under those constraints. The new series has brought in some great writers, such as Bonnie Jo Campbell, John Gallaher, Aleksander Hemon and Adam Johnson. My comments were not a criticism of anyone’s efforts this time around; however, the reading series this year does not have the “width and breadth” Story Week offered Columbia students and the city of Chicago for 19 years.

I can see why a student might not grasp the complexity of all that goes into putting on an event such as Story Week. It wasn’t until after I lifted the SW hood in the fall of last year and saw what was under it, that I fully realized the complexity of the operation.

Finally, about The Chronicle not sitting on the story. When I was a reporter for The Washington Post and we had a hot story, we usually ran with it. Of course, you always try to contact folks who can give some other viewpoint—if there’s some other relevant viewpoint to give. If those people don’t talk to you—for whatever reason—then you state in the story that you tried to reach them and they didn’t respond, and then you go ahead and publish the story. If more developments happen later, or if heretofore silent people decide to speak, then maybe you write another story. Happens in the newspaper business all the time.

Eric May, associate professor in the Creative Writing Department