Chicago Humanities Festival brings you literary luminaries and a whole lot more

Jonathan Lethem - CHF

By Grant Rindner

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Chicago Cubs’ World Series cliffhanger and subsequent Game 7 victory marked the city’s  signature cultural event of the past few weeks.

But in nooks of the city such as Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park or Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium, crowds of local literary enthusiasts gathered, many clad in Cubbie blue, to hear their heroes like authors Jonathan Lethem (Fortress of Solitude) and Grant Faulkner (100 Word Story) extol the virtues of writing fast and for yourself.

“Baseball is suffering. You have a distinction here [in Chicago] and you might not want to let go of it,” said Lethem, teasing the crowd before his talk on October 29 – and before that historic Game 7.

Spanning dozens of similar venues, and more than a 100 events, the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) is thriving in its 27th fall program. The festival runs through November 12. In addition to Faulkner and Lethem, the festival includes the likes of Gloria Steinem, Marshall Brown, Trevor Noah, and Melissa Harris-Perry in the literati lineup. CHF boasts more than 1,500 members whose contributions pay for roughly 80 percent of the festival’s finances.

This year’s theme is “Speed,” the accelerated pace of our daily lives and the role that the arts and culture have in counteracting that frenzied feeling.

“The theme of Speed is full of contradictions – that’s why we like it!” said festival artistic director Jonathan Elmer in a press release. “You can find commuters flipping through 1,000-page novels on the L, but they expect that book will arrive with same-day delivery,” Elmer noted.

Grant Faulkner at CHF
Grant Faulkner (right) in conversation with Ian Belknap at the CHF.

Faulkner’s program, “How to Write Fast – and Why,” certainly fit the bill. He serves as the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (dubbed “NaNoWriMo”), an annual event each November that challenges people to write 50,000 words in 30 days. His conversation with Ian Belknap, a Chicago-based writer/performer who founded the competitive reading series Write Club, centered on how to kick-start creativity, quell your inner editor, and remove the stigma of writing being an isolated activity.

“For years I was one of these plodding, precious writers because I didn’t have a deadline,” Faulkner said of his own struggles. “So I would continually write one sentence or one paragraph or one chapter and then go back and continually perfect things, which is fine except the novel didn’t ever really move forward. The thing about NaNoWriMo is that you have that pressure, you don’t have time to second guess yourself.”

Faulkner stressed the importance of writing for your own personal gain and creative expression. Lethem, who spoke at the festival with former WBEZ host Alison Cuddy on October 29 as part of the festival’s Northwestern Day, said that he set out to write his new book, A Gambler’s Anatomy, largely for himself. He wanted to get back to basics in his own off-kilter style. His latest novel operates as part-travelogue, part-gambling story with elements of noir and visceral horror.

“I began writing novels that came almost completely out of imaginative personal associations, other artworks I liked, and dreams, my own pie-eyed, strange imaginings,” Lethem said. “I think having a book [Dissident Gardens, his previous novel] where I had constituencies of the living and the dead at my shoulders, had an immense sense of involvement and implication and responsibility. That was exciting, but when I got done I conceived of going back to being a storyteller and making up something where no one could get angry at me…except maybe two or three backgammon experts.”

The versatile author won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006 for Motherless Brooklyn, and has churned out 10 novels that blend and rearrange genre tropes into unprecedented concoctions. He fielded questions from Cuddy about his new novel as well as  the relationship between his writing and the constant barrage of material, both practical and pointless, that he finds on the Internet.

“On a really practical level of just keeping myself on the balance beam, I use an Internet blocking program. It seems really dorky to need that but it’s really interesting. I think a lot of writers need that,” Lethem said. “My relationship to [the Internet] is a constant negotiation. Sometimes I feel really alive to the rabbit holes and happy to be able to fly into them in different ways. And other times it seems really problematic, and I’m sure that that’s true for almost everyone in different ways. You have an ambivalent relationship to this riot of information and energy and imagery that’s just at your fingertips.”

While events at CHF span topics from film and art to politics and current events, literature played a tremendous role in this season’s program.

“In part because the festival attracts a crowd that is really invested in both contemporary and classic literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, our programming team goes out of their way to find the rising stars, the giants of all those fields and academics,” said festival spokesman Joe Engleman.

There’s still time to catch the final handful of fall programs, but those who are still awash in Cubs celebration madness will be able to enrich themselves thanks to CHF’s spring festival, which debuted last year.

Locate tickets for remaining CHF events here.

Photo at top: Jonathan Lethem discusses his involuted process for creating a novel with Alison Cuddy at the Chicago Humanities Festival. (Grant Rindner/MEDILL)