R.I.P. Story Week


Colin King

R.I.P. Story Week

Columbia’s Story Week, which was due to celebrate its 20th anniversary this spring as one of the largest literary festivals in the Midwest, has been discontinued because of collegewide budget constraints, according to Randy Albers, professor and chair emeritus in the Creative Writing Department, who founded the festival in 1997.

Story Week was a weeklong array of literary events that attracted thousands of attendees each year, including college students, literary professionals and Chicago residents. Last year’s event attracted nearly 2,500 people, according to 2015’s data. The festival conducted readings, panels and discussions with writers ranging from undergraduates to famous authors and other industry professionals, according to Albers. 

Albers said he met with Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden and representatives from other Columbia offices beginning in the Spring 2015 Semester to discuss Story Week’s future after it was transferred from the Creative Writing Department’s budget to the Provost’s Office. 

The conversations seemed to be heading in a promising direction after Albers provided the Provost’s Office with attendance figures and surveys from the 2015 festival, Albers said, but Wearden informed him of reduced funds for Story Week during an Aug. 24 meeting citing the college’s $9 million “budget hole” for the Fall 2015 Semester.

“The budget, as far as I know, was the main issue,” Albers said. “We had other things they were concerned with, like [making sure] the festival’s mission matched Columbia’s mission, that it might be used for recruitment, that we might use it to enhance the college brand. I felt we were already doing [those things].”

Albers said the funds allocated by the Provost’s Office would not have been adequate to organize Story Week for 2016 in a way that would resemble the festivals of previous years, especially because he was not given the resources to have a Story Week staff. 

“We could have maybe done a small festival, but I did not want to do something half-assed after 19 years of building it to something that was very professional,” he said. 

In previous years, Story Week received about $25,000 to $30,000 each from the department, grants and donations.

Albers said Story Week organizers had done some preliminary planning for the event and applied for some grants. They had also been asked by the Richard H. Dreihaus Foundation if they wanted to renew a three-year grant that Story Week received in 2013.

“The first indication anything was wrong was when we were invited to apply to renew [the] grant, and I was told to hold off [by the provost],” Albers said.

Eric May, an associate professor in the Creative Writing Department and  the festival’s 2015 artistic director, said there were staff members in the former Fiction Writing Department whose job descriptions included organizing Story Week. Those staff members did not remain in the department following the 2013 department merger with the Nonfiction and Poetry programs.

“The department [is] now down to two staff people,” May said. “They have so much work to do. There [are] just not enough hours in the day for them to do the department-related work and work on Story Week.”

May said there was no announcement of Story Week’s discontinuation, but he heard from Albers that it was canceled. Albers said he relayed the information about the provost’s budget decision to the Interim Chair of the Creative Writing Department, Tony Trigilio.

Trigilio and college spokeswoman Cara Birch both refused repeated requests from The Chronicle for comment. However, both were quoted in a Nov. 19 Chicago Tribune article about how the recent changes in the department were earning the college attention. The article briefly mentioned the cancellation, which has yet to be announced on campus.

Though the department offered a new Creative Writing Reading Series this fall, May said the “width and breadth” of opportunities provided by Story Week will be missed. 

Albers said Story Week offered expert knowledge about the publishing industry for people of all ages and offered students a diverse look at writers and professionals.

“We had a plan to continue [events] where we would keep diversity but shine a light on a particular underrepresented group each year,” he said.

The famous writers that Story Week attracted included Gillian Flynn, author of “Gone Girl;” Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses;” and Sapphire, author of “Push,” which was exciting for students, faculty and staff, May said.

“It was something I looked forward to,” May said. “I knew we were going to get a whole host of good writers. It was very informative in a lot of ways.” 

Story Week, which has been sponsored by organizations, including the Chicago Public Library, the Metro and the Illinois Arts Council, engaged Columbia with the Chicago community, May said. 

“It was a lot of publicity to the college when you look at the list of the names of authors, editors and agents that would come through here,” May said. “It certainly got Columbia’s name on a lot of people’s radar.”

Representatives of the Chicago Public Library, which hosted previous Story Week events, declined to comment.

Sheryl Johnston, Story Week 2015’s artistic consultant and former publicist and a 1993 Fiction Writing alumnus, said Story Week attracted prospective students to the college.

Arnie Bernstein, a 1993 Fiction Writing alumnus, said Story Week offered vital networking opportunties. While on a Story Week panel a few years ago, he met an agent who later helped him publish his most recent book, “Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund.”

The book has been published in the United States and Poland and reviewed by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, Bernstein said.

Berstein said Story Week benefited the college too much for it to be discontinued. 

“It makes no sense to me whatsoever,” Bernstein said. “It’s pointless. They’re saving money, but what are they gaining?”

Jacklyn Andersen, a junior creative writing major, said she had not been informed of Story Week’s cancellation.

“There were the industry people who talk about publishing, editing and how that actually works,” she said. “[They answered] questions I would not even know to ask.”

As of press time, Albers said he is considering ways to continue Story Week in future years.

“There’s always the possibility that we’ll be able to resurrect it somewhere, unless Columbia reprioritizes again and feels that Story Week is doing the things that the administration wants and [justifies] the expense,” Albers said. “I would love to do this at Columbia. If not, we are looking at other possibilities. I hope we will be able to do something that will benefit the city, the [literature] community and students at Columbia.”